Supreme Court Removes an Obstacle to Malicious Prosecution Lawsuits

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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday eliminated one of the hurdles facing individuals looking to sue for being falsely accused of crimes.

In Thompson v. Clark, a majority (6-3) of the high court not only acknowledged a claim for malicious prosecution under the Fourth Amendment when an individual is held by law enforcement without probable cause but also ruled that claimants must show only that the underlying criminal charges brought against them were terminated in their favor. They need not show that the underlying prosecution ended with an affirmative indication of innocence.

The ruling reverses a U. S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit opinion and resolves a split among federal appeals courts over how to apply the favorable termination requirement to a Fourth Amendment claim for malicious prosecution.

The opinion includes a reminder that police officers are still protected by the requirement that a plaintiff show the absence of probable cause and by qualified immunity.

The case before the court involved Larry Thompson, who was living with his fiancée (now wife) and their newborn baby in an apartment in Brooklyn, New York. Thompson’s sister-in-law, who apparently suffered from a mental illness, called 911 to report that Thompson was sexually abusing the baby. When Emergency Medical Technicians arrived, Thompson denied that anyone had called 911.

When the EMTs returned with four police officers, Thompson told them that they could not enter without a warrant. The police nonetheless entered and handcuffed Thompson. EMTs took the baby to the hospital where medical professionals examined her and found no signs of abuse. Meanwhile, Thompson was arrested and charged with obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest. He was detained for two days before being released.

The charges against Thompson were dismissed before trial without any explanation by the prosecutor or judge.

Thompson sued the police officers under an 1871 federal civil rights law known as Section 1983 that created a federal tort liability for individuals to sue state and local officers for deprivations of constitutional rights. Thompson claimed that the officers had violated the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable seizures.

Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, writing for the majority, noted that the law in 1871 did not require more than dismissal of charges to overcome the requirement of a favorable termination.

The parties to this case, as well as the lower courts, disagree about what a favorable termination entails. That is, is it sufficient to show that Thompson’s prosecution ended without a conviction or must he also show that his prosecution ended with some affirmative indication of innocence, such as an acquittal or a dismissal accompanied by a statement from the judge that the evidence was insufficient?

In this case, as in others, Thompson could not put forth any substantial evidence that would explain why the prosecutor had moved to dismiss the charges or why the trial court had dismissed the charges. The prosecutor and trial court did not explain their decisions.

Since there was no evidence, the district court ruled that Thompson’s criminal case had not ended in a way that affirmatively indicated his innocence and granted judgment to the defendant officers on that Fourth Amendment claim. The U. S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Thompson’s Fourth Amendment claim.

In explaining the court’s agreement that the 1871 tort law did not require a plaintiff to show an affirmative indication of innocence, Kavanaugh wrote:

“The question of whether a criminal defendant was wrongly charged does not logically depend on whether the prosecutor or court explained why the prosecution was dismissed. And the individual’s ability to seek redress for a wrongful prosecution cannot reasonably turn on the fortuity of whether the prosecutor or court happened to explain why the charges were dismissed.”

In addition, Kavanaugh noted, requiring a plaintiff to show that his prosecution ended with an affirmative indication of innocence is not necessary to protect officers from unwarranted civil suits since, among other things, officers are still protected by qualified immunity and the plaintiff must show a absence of probable cause.

Thompson’s lawyer, Amir Ali of the MacArthur Justice Center, told the Associated Press that the court had removed an unjust barrier and his client will now get the opportunity to prove his malicious prosecution claim inn court.

In a dissent, Associate Justice Samuel Alito argued that a malicious prosecution is not the same as an unreasonable search as cited in the Fourth Amendment. “A comparison of the elements of the malicious prosecution tort with the elements of a Fourth Amendment unreasonable seizure claim shows that there is no overlap,” he wrote. He was joined in dissent by Associate Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas.

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