SCOTUS Rules Acquittal Not Required to Bring Malicious Prosecution Claim
In Thompson v. Clark, 596 U.S. ____ (2022), the U.S. Supreme Court held that to demonstrate a favorable termination of a criminal prosecution for purposes of the Fourth Amendment claim under 42 U.S.C. §1983 for malicious prosecution, a plaintiff need not show that the criminal prosecution ended with some affirmative indication of innocence. Rather, a plaintiff need only show that his prosecution ended without a conviction.
Facts of the Case
In January 2014, petitioner Larry Thompson 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. After the dismissal, Thompson filed suit under 42 U.S.C. §1983, alleging several constitutional violations, including a Fourth Amendment claim for malicious prosecution.
To maintain a Fourth Amendment claim under §1983, a plaintiff must demonstrate, among other things, that he obtained a favorable termination of the underlying criminal prosecution. To meet that requirement, Second Circuit precedent, Lanning v. Glens Falls, 908 F. 3d 19 (2018), required Thompson to show that his criminal prosecution ended not merely without a conviction, but also with some affirmative indication of his innocence. The District Court, bound by Lanning, held that Thompson’s criminal case had not ended in a way that affirmatively indicated his innocence because Thompson could not offer any substantial evidence to explain why his case was dismissed. The Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Thompson’s claim.
Supreme Court’s Decision
By a vote of 6-3, the Supreme Court reversed. It held that the favorable termination requirement of the Fourth Amendment claim under §1983 for malicious prosecution does not require a showing that the criminal prosecution ended with some affirmative indication of innocence. Instead, plaintiffs like Thompson need only show that his prosecution ended without a conviction.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote on behalf of the majority. As he explained, the case concerns one element of the Fourth Amendment claim under §1983 for malicious prosecution.
To determine the elements of a constitutional claim under §1983, the Court’s practice is to first look to the elements of the most analogous tort as of 1871 when §1983 was enacted, so long as doing so is consistent with “the values and purposes of the constitutional right at issue.” In accord with the elements of the malicious prosecution tort, a Fourth Amendment claim under §1983 for malicious prosecution requires the plaintiff to show a favorable termination of the underlying criminal case against him. However, the courts of appeal disagreed about what constitutes a favorable termination.
To resolve the circuit split, the Supreme Court looked to American malicious prosecution tort law as of 1871. “Because the American tort-law consensus as of 1871 did not require a plaintiff in a malicious prosecution suit to show that his prosecution ended with an affirmative indication of innocence, we similarly construe the Fourth Amendment claim under §1983 for malicious prosecution,” Justice Kavanaugh wrote. He went on to emphasize that the Court’s interpretation is in line with the “values and purposes of the Fourth Amendment,” writing:
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, requiring the plaintiff to show that his prosecution ended with an affirmative indication of innocence would paradoxically foreclose a §1983 claim when the government’s case was weaker and dismissed without explanation before trial, but allow a claim when the government’s evidence was substantial enough to proceed to trial. That would make little sense. Finally, 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— among other things, officers are still protected by the requirement that the plaintiff show the absence of probable cause and by qualified immunity.
Finally, the Court held that Thompson has satisfied the requirement of showing that the criminal prosecution ended without a conviction. It remanded the case for the lower court to determine other outstanding issues, such as whether Thompson was ever seized as a result of the alleged malicious prosecution, whether he was charged without probable cause, and whether respondent is entitled to qualified immunity.
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Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.