Malicious Prosecution Claims Clarified by US Supreme Court
April 23, 2022- Posted by Larry E. Holtz, Esq.
The Case: In Thompson v. Clark, 142 S.Ct. 1332 (2022), plaintiff, Larry Thompson, lived with his fiancée and their newborn baby girl in an apartment in Brooklyn, New York. At the time, Thompson’s sister-in-law was also staying there. “The sister-in-law apparently suffered from a mental illness.” On the day in question, “the sister-in-law called 911 and claimed that Thompson was sexually abusing his one-week-old baby daughter.” When several EMTs and four police officers arrived, Thompson told them that they could not come in without a warrant. “The officers nonetheless entered and, after a brief scuffle, handcuffed Thompson. The EMTs examined the baby, and after finding red marks on the baby’s body, the EMTs took the baby to the hospital for evaluation. The marks turned out to be a case of diaper rash … no signs of abuse.”
“Meanwhile, the police officers arrested Thompson for resisting their entry into the apartment. Thompson was taken to a local hospital and then to jail. While Thompson was in custody, one of the police officers prepared and filed a criminal complaint charging Thompson with obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest. Thompson remained in custody for two days. A judge then released him on his own recognizance.”
“Before trial, the prosecution moved to dismiss the charges, and the trial judge in turn dismissed the case. The prosecutor did not explain why she sought to dismiss the charges, nor did the trial judge explain why he dismissed the case.” Thereafter, Thompson sued the police under 42 U.S.C. §1983, seeking money damages from the officers in federal court. Thompson alleged several constitutional violations, including that, under the Fourth Amendment, he was “maliciously prosecuted” without probable cause and that he was unlawfully seized as a result.
The Law: The elements of the malicious prosecution tort are as follows: (1) proceeding was instituted without probable cause; (2) the “motive in instituting” the suit “was malicious,” which was often defined in this context as without probable cause and for a purpose other than bringing the defendant to justice; and (3) the prosecution “terminated in the acquittal or discharge of the accused.” This third requirement—a favorable termination of the underlying criminal prosecution—is the focus of the parties’ dispute in this case.
The point of contention was “what a favorable termination entails.” In particular, “does it suffice for a plaintiff to show that his prosecution ended without a conviction? Or must the plaintiff 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?” Lower courts have split over how to apply the favorable termination requirement to sustain a claim for malicious prosecution. In addition to the Second Circuit, other Courts of Appeals have held that a favorable termination requires some affirmative indication of innocence.
After extensive analysis, the Supreme Court settled the issue, holding that that “a Fourth Amendment claim under §1983 for malicious prosecution does not require the plaintiff to show that the criminal prosecution ended with some affirmative indication of innocence. Rather, a plaintiff need only show that the criminal prosecution ended without a conviction.” And here, Thompson has satisfied that requirement.
On remand, the lower courts are to determine whether Thompson was ever seized as a result of the alleged malicious prosecution, whether he was charged without probable cause, and whether the police are entitled to qualified immunity.