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High court considers false arrest suit deadline

WASHINGTON -- The lawyer for a man whose illegal arrest led to more than eight years behind bars pleaded with the Supreme Court yesterday to allow his client to sue the police who arrested him.

To do otherwise, lawyer Kenneth Flaxman said, the justice system would be saying, "It's just tough. You're seized for 8 1/2 years, and you can't go to state court, and you can't go to federal court."

Flaxman's client, Andre Wallace, was freed from prison in 2002, after Illinois courts ruled that his arrest was illegal, then reversed his murder conviction and caused prosecutors to drop charges against him. He had been in custody since his arrest in 1994 in the killing of John Handy.

Yet when Wallace filed a federal civil rights lawsuit a year later against the Chicago police officers who arrested him, federal judges told him he had waited too long and dismissed the suit.

Yesterday, justices expressed some sympathy for his predicament, but also some skepticism that he would prevail.

What about the police officers, wondered Chief Justice John Roberts? If Wallace had the right to sue so long after his arrest, the officers wouldn't know "if they're going to be sued for 10 years, 12 years," Roberts said.

Wallace had two years in which to file his civil rights claim. The question before the justices is whether the two-year clock began running at the time of Wallace's arrest in 1994, when he was released from custody in 2002, or some point in between.

The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit said Wallace should have taken some action in the two years after his arrest. In similar cases in other parts of the country, appeals courts have said false arrest claims can't be filed until convictions are nullified.

Wallace was 15 when Chicago police officers Kristen Kato and Eugene Roy brought him in for questioning in the killing of John Handy in January 1994. In the course of an interrogation that went through the night, Wallace said he was subjected to a "good cop/bad cop" routine that included being slapped and kicked. In the officers' account, Wallace was free to leave at any time.

Eventually, Wallace confessed. He tried and failed to have his statements thrown out on the grounds that he was arrested without probable cause and that his confession was coerced.

He was convicted of first degree-murder in 1996 after a trial in which Wallace said he shot Handy in self-defense or, alternatively, in mutual combat, attorneys for the officers argued in court papers.

Wallace appealed the conviction. The Illinois Appellate Court ruled in 1998 that the arrest was made without probable cause, but still ordered a lower court to determine whether the confession could stand. The court said it could, affirming the conviction. The Illinois Appellate Court reversed the conviction.

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