By Andrew Kilpinen

In a split decision featuring three separate opinions, the 4th Circuit affirmed in part and vacated in part the district courts dismissal in Owens v. Baltimore City State’s Attorneys.

 Owens Challenges Statute of Limitations, Sovereign Immunity, Qualified Immunity, and Failure to State a Claim

The Court reviewed four issues de novo: (1) Is Owens’s claim time barred, (2) is the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s office an entity capable of suit, (3) are Officers Pelligrini, Dunnigan, and Landsman protected by qualified immunity, and (4) does Owens’s complaint contain sufficient factual content to survive a motion to dismiss on the claim that the BCPD followed a custom, policy, or practice by which local officials violated Owens’s constitutional rights?

 Owens Was Convicted of Rape and Murder

The present controversy grew out of the investigation, trial, and conviction of James Owens for the rape and murder of Colleen Williar on August 2, 1987. The State’s key witness, James Thompson, changed his testimony five times during the investigation and trial. Central to Owens’s appeal was withholding of the multiple variations of Thompson’s testimony from defense counsel.

The jury convicted Owens of burglary and felony murder. In 2006, DNA evidence showed that Owens’s DNA did not match the blood and semen evidence at the crime scene. On June 4, 2007, Owens was granted a new trial. On October 15, 2008 the State’s Attorney entered a nolle prosequi, dropping the charges against him. Owens was subsequently from prison released after twenty years of incarceration.

 Statute of Limitations Began to Run After the Nolle Prosequi and Owens’s Claim is Therefore Not Time Barred

First, the Court held that Owens’s claim is not time barred because the statute of limitations began to run when the State issued the nolle prosequi, not when the State granted Owens’s a new trial. Since § 1983 does not provide a statute of limitations, the Court must look to the common-law tort most analogous to Owens’s claim. Here, the Court identified malicious prosecution as the common-law tort most analogous to Owens’s §1983 claims. Generally, the statute of limitation clock begins to run as soon as the plaintiff knows or has reason to know of his injury. However, sometimes, as is the case in malicious prosecutions, the common law provides a “distinctive rule” for determining the start date of the limitations period. Thus, the Court held that the statute of limitations began to run on Owens’s claim after the nolle prosequi, not at the start of the new trial.

 Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office Is Not an Entity Capable of Being Sued

Second, the Court held that the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office is not an entity capable of being sued because the office does not have a legal identity. To be suable, an office or agency must be granted a legal identity through statutory or constitutional authority. Owens argued that the Maryland General Assembly granted such legal identity when it named Title 15 of the Maryland Code of Criminal Procedure “Office of the State’s Attorney.” The Court rejected this argument stating that the title refers to a position held by an individual and not a suable office.

 Officers Are Not Protected by Qualified Immunity

The Court rejected the officer’s defense of qualified immunity. The Court had little difficulty concluding that Owens’s allegations state a plausible § 1983 claim because the information withheld by the officers would have supported his theory that Thompson committed the rape and murder; commenting that at the very least it would have discredited Thompson’s testimony. The Court cites the fact that the officers were seasoned veterans who called the ASA moments after receiving Thompson’s final story to support the conclusion that they withheld the four previous versions intentionally and maliciously. The Court points to precedent in Barbee, Sutton, and Boone in holding that the officers should have known that not disclosing material exculpatory evidence was a violation of Owens’s constitutional rights in 1988.

 Owens’s Complaint Survived Motion to Dismiss

Finally, the Court held that the factual allegations in Owens’s complaint, including reported and unreported cases of officers withholding information from the period of time before and during his trial, contained sufficient factual content to allege that the BCPD maintained a custom, policy, or practice allowing the withholding of material exculpatory evidence. The Court found the allegations that BCPD officers withheld information on multiple occasions could establish a “persistent and widespread” pattern of practice. The Court held that Owens’s complaint survived the BCPD’s 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss.

 4th Circuit Affirmed in Part and Vacated in Part

Owens will have yet another day in court to prove his § 1983 claims against the BCPD, and the individual officers, but not the State Attorney’s Office. The case was remanded to the district court for further proceedings.

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