In Thompson v. Clark, 212 L. Ed. 2d 382 (2022), the United States Supreme Court held that to demonstrate a favorable termination of a criminal prosecution for purposes of the Fourth Amendment claim under Section 1983 for malicious prosecution, a plaintiff need not show that the criminal prosecution ended with some affirmative indication of innocence.  A plaintiff need only show that his prosecution ended without a conviction.

Background

Larry Thompson was living with his fiancée (now wife) and their newborn baby in a Brooklyn apartment in New York.  In January 2014, Thompson’s sister-in-law, who apparently suffered from a mental illness, also stayed there.  She called 911 to report that Thompson was sexually abusing his one-week-old baby daughter.  When Emergency Medical Technicians (“EMTs”) 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, after a brief scuffle, handcuffed Thompson.  The EMTs examined the baby and found red marks on her body.  The EMTs took the baby to the hospital where medical professionals examined her and determined the red marks were diaper rash.  The medical professionals found no signs of abuse.

The police officers arrested Thompson for resisting their entry into his apartment.  He was charged in a criminal complaint 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. section 1983, alleging several constitutional violations, including a Fourth Amendment claim for malicious prosecution.  To prevail on a Fourth Amendment Section 1983 claim for malicious prosecution under Second Circuit precedent established in Lanning v. Glens Falls, 908 F. 3d 19, 22 (2nd Cir. 2018), Thompson had 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.[1]

The Second Circuit, adhering to its precedent in Lanning, affirmed the dismissal of Thompson’s claim.  The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve a split[2] among the Courts of Appeals over how to apply the favorable termination requirement of the Fourth Amendment claim under Section 1983 for malicious prosecution.

Discussion

The United States Supreme Court initially noted that in 1871, Congress passed, and President Grant signed the Civil Rights Act of 1871.  Section 1 of that Act, now codified at 42 U.S.C. section 1983, created a species of federal tort liability for individuals to sue state and local officers for deprivations of constitutional rights.  The Court explained that to determine the elements of a constitutional claim under Section 1983, the Supreme Court’s practice is to first look to the elements of the most analogous tort as of 1871 when Section 1983 was enacted, so long as doing so is consistent with “the values and purposes of the constitutional right at issue.”  Manuel v. Joliet, 580 U. S. 357, 370 (2017) (Alito, J., dissenting).

Here, Thompson brought a Fourth Amendment claim under Section 1983 for malicious prosecution, which the Court noted has sometimes been referred to as a claim for unreasonable seizure pursuant to legal process.  The Supreme Court stated that the most analogous tort to this Fourth Amendment claim is malicious prosecution, a determination shared by most of the Courts of Appeals to consider the question.  The Court explained that the wrongful initiation of charges without probable cause is the gravamen of both the Fourth Amendment claim for malicious prosecution and the tort of malicious prosecution.  One of the required elements of the malicious prosecution tort was a favorable termination of the underlying criminal prosecution.

The issue before the Court was to determine what a “favorable termination” entails.  Would it suffice for a plaintiff to show that his criminal prosecution ended without a conviction?  Or must the plaintiff also demonstrate that the prosecution ended with some affirmative indication of his innocence, such as an acquittal or a dismissal accompanied by a statement from the judge that the evidence was insufficient?

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, the Supreme Court similarly construed Thompson’s Fourth Amendment claim under Section 1983 for malicious prosecution.  The Court declared that doing so was consistent with “the values and purposes” of the Fourth Amendment.  Manuel, 580 U. S., at 370.  The Court explained that questions concerning whether a criminal defendant was wrongly charged, or whether an individual may seek redress for a wrongful prosecution, cannot reasonably depend on whether the prosecutor or court happened to explain why charges were dismissed.  The Court added that 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, as officers are still protected by the requirement that the plaintiff show the absence of probable cause and by qualified immunity.

The Supreme Court thus concluded that to demonstrate a favorable termination of a criminal prosecution for purposes of the Fourth Amendment claim under Section 1983 for malicious prosecution, a plaintiff need not show that the criminal prosecution ended with some affirmative indication of innocence.  A plaintiff need only show that his prosecution ended without a conviction, and Thompson had satisfied that requirement here.  Accordingly, The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Second Circuit and remanded.

Justices Alito, Thomas, and Gorsuch dissented.  The dissent argued that the majority recognized a novel hybrid claim by “stitching together elements taken from two very different claims:  a Fourth Amendment unreasonable seizure claim and a common-law malicious-prosecution claim.”  The dissent maintained this approach had no basis in the Constitution, and the Court should simply have held that a malicious-prosecution claim may not be brought under the Fourth Amendment.

HOW THIS AFFECTS YOUR AGENCY

The Supreme Court’s decision here clarifies that plaintiffs need not provide evidence of any sort of factual innocence to maintain a malicious prosecution claim under the Fourth Amendment.  This is a somewhat lower threshold to bringing Fourth Amendment Section 1983 malicious prosecution claims.  A lack of a conviction, regardless of any explanation as to the trial court’s decision, suffices to provide a “favorable termination” for these purposes.  The Court’s decision in Thompson resolves a circuit split on this legal issue.

As always, if you want to discuss any of this in greater detail, do not hesitate to contact James Touchstone at jrt@jones-mayer.com or by telephone at (714) 446-1400.

Information on www.jones-mayer.com is for general use and is not legal advice.  The mailing of this Client Alert Memorandum is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, an attorney-client-relationship.

 

[1] The District Court added that the relevant Second Circuit precedent “can and should be changed” to say that a favorable termination occurs so long as the prosecution ends without a conviction.

[2] See, e.g., Kossler v. Crisanti, 564 F. 3d 181, 187 (3rd Cir. 2009) (en banc); Cordova v. Albuquerque, 816 F. 3d 645, 649 (10th Cir. 2016); and Laskar v. Hurd, 972 F. 3d 1278, 1282 (11th Cir. 2020).