SCOTUS Announces § 1983 Malicious Prosecution Claim’s ‘Favorable Determination’ Requirement Satisfied by Showing Prosecution Ended Without a Conviction
by Richard Resch
The Supreme Court of the United States held that the “favorable determination” requirement for a Fourth Amendment claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for malicious prosecution does not require the plaintiff to show that the prosecution ended with some“affirmative indication of innocence.” A showing that the prosecution ended without a conviction is sufficient to satisfy the favorable determination requirement, the Court instructed.
In January 2014, Larry Thompson’s sister-in-law, who suffered from mental illness, called 911 and accused him of sexually abusing his one-week-old baby. When EMTs arrived at his apartment, he denied that anyone called 911 and refused them entry. They later returned with four police officers. Thompson told them that they couldn’t enter his residence without a warrant, but the officers nevertheless entered. After a brief scuffle, Thompson was handcuffed and placed under arrest. The baby was taken to the hospital, but medical professional didn’t find any signs of abuse.
Thompson was transported to jail where he remained in custody for two days. During that time, one of the officers prepared and filed charges against him for obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest. He was released on his own recognizance. Prior to trial, the prosecution moved to dismiss the charges, and the trial judge dismissed the case. No explanation was provided by either the prosecution or judge for the dismissal.
Thompson then filed suit for damages under § 1983 against the police officers who had arrested and charged him, claiming “malicious prosecution” without probable cause and that he was seized in the process in violation of the Fourth Amendment. To prevail under Second Circuit precedent, he was required to show the prosecution ended without a conviction and there was some affirmative indication of his innocence. See Lanning v. Glens Falls, 908 F.3d 19 (2d Cir. 2018). Since no explanation was provided as to why the charges were dismissed, Thompson was unable to provide any affirmative indication of his innocence. Consequently, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York granted judgment in favor of the defendants. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit followed Lanning and affirmed the dismissal.
However, there is a split among the Circuits regarding the favorable termination requirement for Fourth Amendment claims under § 1983 for malicious prosecution. The Second Circuit and some others hold that favorable termination requires some affirmative indication of innocence. See, e.g., Lanning; Kossier v. Crisanti, 564 F.3d 181 (3d Cir. 2009); Cordova v. Albuquerque, 816 F.3d 645 (10th Cir. 2016). On the other hand, the Eleventh Circuit holds that the favorable termination requirement is satisfied as long as the prosecution ends without a conviction, i.e., there’s no additional requirement for some affirmative indication of innocence. See Laskar v. Hurd, 972 F.3d 1278 (11th Cir. 2020). To resolve this Circuit split, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Thompson’s appeal.
The Court observed that there are three elements of the tort of malicious prosecution: “(i) the suit or proceeding was ‘instituted without any probable cause’; (ii) the ‘motive 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 (iii) the prosecution ‘terminated in the acquittal or discharge of the accused.’” T. Cooley, Law of Torts (1880).
The Court noted that the third element—favorable termination—is at issue in the present case, stating: “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?”
The Court explained that § 1983 is the current codification of § 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which created federal tort liability for individuals to bring suit against state and local officers for depravation of constitutional rights. In order to answer the narrow question before it, the Court explained that it must look to malicious prosecution tort law in America as of 1871. See Nieves v. Bartlett, 139 S. Ct. 1715 (2019).
In reviewing numerous cases from that period, the Court determined that most courts that considered the question concluded “the favorable termination element of a malicious prosecution claim was satisfied so long as the prosecution ended without a conviction.” The Court noted that a plaintiff during that era could proceed with a malicious prosecution claim when “the prosecutor abandoned the criminal case or the court dismissed the case without providing a reason.” (see opinion collecting cases) Additionally, the Court stated that many courts expressly said that a favorable termination doesn’t require “an acquittal or a dismissal accompanied by some affirmative indication of innocence.” See, e.g., Chapman v. Woods, 6 Blackf. 504 (1843). Similarly, the treaties of the era supported this view of favorable termination, according to the Court. See Cooley.
The Court stated that the parties to the present case have cited to only a single case from the relevant time period that took the opposite view. The Rhode Island Supreme Court concluded “with reluctance” that “the termination must be such as to furnish prima facie evidence that the action was without foundation” in Rounds v. Humes, 7 R.I. 535 (1863). The Court dismissed that case as a singular outlier among the courts to have addressed the issue at the time with the consensus as of 1871 not requiring an affirmative indication of innocence.
The Court explained why the consensus position is consistent with “the values and purposes” of the Fourth Amendment as follows: “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.”
Thus, the Court held 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.” A showing that the prosecution ended without a conviction is sufficient, the Court instructed. Applying the newly announced standard to the present case, the Court ruled that Thompson satisfied the favorable determination requirement.
Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remanded for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. See: Thompson v. Clark, 142 S. Ct. 1332 (2022).
Writer’s note: This opinion is encouraging news for victims who have been framed, had evidenced planted or falsified, or otherwise been wrongfully prosecuted. The removal of the daunting affirmative indication of innocence barrier for those falsely accused of crimes and wrongfully prosecuted means that more victims will now get the opportunity to prove their malicious prosecution claims in court. This is an important ruling in the ongoing battle against police misconduct and struggle for greater police accountability.
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Related legal case
Thompson v. Clark
|Cite||142 S. Ct. 1332 (2022)|