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Appeals Court Reverses Summary Judgment in Malicious Prosecution and Evidence Concealment Case against Boston Police Department

By Derek Gilna

In a well-reasoned opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has permitted a Section 1983 action against the Boston Police Department (BPD) to continue. James Haley had accused the BPD of concealing exculpatory evidence that resulted in him serving over thirty years for a murder that he did not commit. Haley had already been released from prison when, according to the opinion, "the discovery of previously undisclosed evidence resulted in the vacation of his conviction."

Haley had been convicted of the July 11, 1971 murder of David Myers, in large part based upon the false testimony of a witness who claimed that she had seen him at the scene of the murder, supposedly brandishing a gun and a knife. Prior to trial, Haley's attorney had filed with the court a blanket motion for discovery for production of all evidence, including that favorable to the defense, including potential impeachment material. The state, in its response to this discovery request, did not furnish the original statements made by the alleged witnesses relating to Haley, which differed substantially from their subsequent testimony at his trial. These inconsistencies would have been useful to Haley at trial.

In 2005, Haley formally requested all files relevant to his case from the district attorney's office and the Boston Police Department (BPD), based upon the Massachusetts Public Records Act, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 66, Section 10. The district attorney responded that he no longer had documents relating to Haley's case, but Haley's request to the BPD yielded sixty pages of relevant documents. These documents contained previously unproduced statements which showed that the state's witness trial testimony did not match their original police statements. Using these newly-produced documents, Haley filed a motion for new trial. In response, the Commonwealth vacated the conviction and requested a new trial.

Haley's new attorney then requested discovery, which disclosed that all other files other than the sixty pages had been lost. Haley moved to dismiss the case against him, and on August 26, 2008, the Superior Court of Massachusetts granted his motion.

Based upon this dismissal, Haley filed his 1983 action against the City of Boston, the BPD, and the two BPD detectives who handled his case, alleging deliberate non-disclosure of various exculpatory statements. The district court dismissed the case against the detectives based upon the doctrine of qualified immunity, and also the count against the City of Boston for failing to give proper notice of the lawsuit under Massachusetts court rules.

The Appellate Court reversed the district court's ruling dismissing Haley's 1983 claim against the detectives and Boston. Haley had alleged that the detectives' actions violated the affirmative no-fault disclosure obligation articulated in Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, (1963), and that it also violated his due process and rights and disclosure obligations imposed by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

The court did not find liability under the Brady doctrine, but rather based upon the Supreme Court's decision in Mooney v. Holohan, 294 U.S. 103, (1935), and Limone v. Condon, 372 F.3d. 39, (1st Cir. 2004), which held that "Suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused upon request violates due process."

The Appellate Court also found that the municipal liability claims could go forward, based upon Haley's allegation that the "BPD had a standing policy that was itself unconstitutional and that the City failed to train the personnel in their evidence-disclosure obligations despite notices of persistent and ongoing violations," invoking the holding of Monell v. Dept. of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, (1978).

The court also correctly noted that its ruling only permits the claim to go forward to the trial phase. Haley, or in this case his estate, must now prove that what he alleged is true to prevail, and perhaps collect damages from defendants. See: Haley v. City of Boston, 657 F.3d 39 (1st Cir., 2011).

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Related legal case

Haley v. City of Boston