U.S. Supreme Court holds that Section 1983 procedural due process claim accrues when state-court litigation ends

Reed v. Goertz, the Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine when a cause of action accrues (and thus when the statute of limitations period starts running) for a plaintiff’s claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 that his conviction violated procedural due process. Reed v. Goertz, __ U.S. __ 2023 WL 2992697, at *2 (U.S. Apr. 19, 2023).

Texas charged and convicted Rodney Reed with murder. He was sentenced to death. He filed a motion under Texas post-conviction DNA testing law, Tex. Code Crim. Proc. § § 64.01-64.05. Maddeningly, in a ruling that seems exactly backwards (but apparently is consistent with Texas statute), the trial court denied Reed’s motion because the State failed to preserve an adequate chain of custody. On appeal, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the trial court and later denied Reed’s motion for rehearing.

Reed next sued in federal court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, asserting that Texas’s post-conviction DNA testing law failed to provide procedural due process. Among other things, Reed argued that the law’s stringent chain-of-custody requirement was unconstitutional and in effect foreclosed DNA testing for individuals convicted before “rules governing the State’s handling and storage of evidence were put in place.” Id. at 2. The U. S. District Court for the Western District of Texas dismissed Reed’s complaint. The U. S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed on the ground that Reed’s § 1983 suit was filed too late, after the applicable 2-year statute of limitations had run. The Fifth Circuit ruled that the statute of limitations began to run when the Texas trial court denied Reed’s motion (which occurred more than two years before Reed filed his § 1983 suit in federal court), not when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied rehearing. The Supreme Court granted cert to resolve a circuit split as on this SOL issue.

After quickly concluding that Reed had standing and that Texas lacked sovereign immunity, the Supreme Court held that “Reed’s § 1983 claim was complete and the statute of limitations began to run when the state litigation ended-when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied Reed’s motion for rehearing.” Id. at *4. It reversed the Fifth Circuit accordingly.