updated 2/21/2007 3:47:35 PM ET 2007-02-21T20:47:35

A deadline is a deadline is a deadline, the Supreme Court said Wednesday in refusing to allow a man wrongly imprisoned for more than eight years to sue the police officers who arrested him.

Andre Wallace, whose murder conviction was overturned in 2002, waited several years too long to file his false arrest lawsuit, the court said in a 7-2 ruling.

He had two years in which to file his civil rights lawsuit, which he began working on during the year after his release. The issue before the court was when the two-year clock began to run.

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, said the correct starting point is when a judge reviews the criminal charges against a defendant and bounds him over for trial. In Wallace’s case, this hearing occurred in 1994, shortly after his arrest.

Wallace was a minor at the time, 15 years old, and Scalia said the two-year period did not begin until he became an adult, which is at 18 in Illinois. But even then, he said, “the suit was out of time.”

Justice Stephen Breyer, joined in dissent by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said it would make more sense to hold off on filing false arrest claims until criminal convictions are nullified because of problems with the arrest, confession or gathering of other evidence.

The decision probably will result in a flood of false arrest suits, “no matter how meritless the claim,” because criminal defendants won’t risk missing the deadline, Breyer said.

Kenneth Flaxman, Wallace’s lawyer, said the ruling will create an “administrative nightmare” for the lower courts.

The court sent Wallace a curt message, Flaxman said. “Sorry. Have a nice day,” he said.

Freed in 2002
Wallace was freed from prison in 2002, after Illinois courts ruled his arrest was illegal, reversed his murder conviction and caused prosecutors to drop charges against him. He had been in custody since shortly after John Handy was shot to death in 1994.

Wallace filed his lawsuit in 2003. A federal judge dismissed the suit and was upheld by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In similar cases in other parts of the country, appeals courts have said false arrest claims can’t be filed until convictions are nullified.

Chicago police officers Kristen Kato and Eugene Roy brought Wallace in for questioning in Handy’s death 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.

Coerced confession
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 claimed 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 eventually threw out the confession because it was the product of an arrest made without probable cause.

Prosecutors at that point decided not to try Wallace again, but would reinstate the murder charge against Wallace if they got additional evidence, the officers’ lawyers said.

The case is Wallace v. Chicago Police Officers, 05-1240.

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