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Another Court Has Abandoned The Actual Innocence Rule

Another State Supreme Court, here Idaho, has abandoned the actual innocence rule. That rule holds that a criminal defendant cannot sue his lawyer for legal malpractice unless he establishes actual innocence.

The court explained:

This Court has addressed a legal malpractice claim arising from a criminal case only once, in Lamb v. Manweiler, 129 Idaho 269, 923 P.2d 976 (1996). Lamb did not address the statute of limitations issue; however, Lamb did address—in dicta—the actual innocence element. Id. at 272, 923 P.2d at 979. Before the appeal reached this Court, the Idaho Court of Appeals vacated and remanded the district court’s grant of summary judgment. In doing so, the Idaho Court of Appeals addressed an issue of first impression in Idaho: where a legal malpractice suit stems from the representation of a client in a criminal prosecution, must a plaintiff prove actual innocence? The Idaho Court of Appeals held that a plaintiff must prove that he or she was in fact innocent of a crime. Manweiler petitioned this Court for review, and this Court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment. This Court did not expressly require actual innocence as an element of the claim; rather, it stated that “Lamb does not dispute the proposition that in a legal malpractice action arising from representation of a defendant in a criminal proceeding, the person pursuing the claim must establish the additional element of actual innocence of the underlying criminal charges.” Id.

We hold that actual innocence is not an element of a criminal malpractice cause of action. Requiring a criminal malpractice plaintiff to prove actual innocence is contrary to the fundamental principle that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Further, a criminal defendant can be harmed separately from the harm he or she incurs as a result of being guilty of a crime. See Piris v. Kitching, 375 P.3d 627 (Wash. 2016). Additionally, as a practical matter, requiring actual innocence would essentially eliminate a defense attorney’s duty to provide competent counsel to a client he or she knows to be guilty. For the foregoing reasons, we hold that actual innocence is not an element of a criminal malpractice cause of action.

The court also held that the statute of limitations does not begin to run until the former criminal defendant is exonerated.

In sum, the actual innocence rule has been losing ground for some time in other states. In Illinois, the rule remains the law. I believe the reason for this change in approach has been the vast number of criminal defendants who have been exonerated by DNA evidence over the past 30 years. In these cases, courts often find other problems, such as poor quality lineups and poor identifications. This remains an important issue that will merit further discussion and interest.

Edward X. Clinton, Jr.


Source: Molen v. Christian, Idaho: Supreme Court 2017 – Google Scholar

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