U.S. Supreme Court

SCOTUS rules for plaintiff who sued police after prosecutors dropped resisting-arrest charge

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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 Monday that a plaintiff can pursue his Fourth Amendment lawsuit against police officers for malicious prosecution as long as his prosecution ended without a conviction.

The high court ruled that plaintiff Larry Thompson can pursue his Fourth Amendment claim under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act without showing that the case ended “with some affirmative indication of his innocence.”

Three conservative justices joined the court’s three liberal justices in the majority opinion. Those conservative justices are Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

Prosecutors had dropped charges of resisting arrest and obstructing governmental administration against Thompson without any explanation, according to the majority opinion. Thompson can proceed with his suit, even though there was no acquittal and no statement by the judge that the evidence was insufficient, the court majority said in an opinion by Kavanaugh.

Police had come to Thompson’s apartment in Brooklyn, New York, in January 2014 after a relative, who apparently suffered from a mental illness, had accused Thompson of sexually abusing his baby daughter, the court said. Thompson said the police could not enter his apartment without a warrant, but they entered anyway. Police arrested Thompson after a brief scuffle.

A medical examination found that red marks on the baby were diaper rash, and there were no other signs of abuse.

Two officials with Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research had highlighted the importance of the Thompson case in an October 2021 opinion column for BU Today.

They said dismissed criminal charges “can be red flags for police misconduct,” and officers sometimes pursue resisting-arrest charges to provide justification for excessive force. “This practice is so well-known that it is colloquially referred to as pursuing ‘cover charges,’” they wrote.

Kavanaugh’s opinion for the Supreme Court interpreted a caselaw requirement that plaintiffs such as Thompson must show “a favorable termination” of the underlying prosecution. The requirement is based on tort law in 1871, when Congress adopted the Civil Rights Act to create federal tort liability for violations of constitutional rights.

The common law tort of malicious prosecution was most similar to Thompson’s claim, Kavanaugh said. And in 1871, plaintiffs could sue for malicious prosecution when a prosecutor abandoned a criminal case or when a court dismissed a case without providing a reason, Kavanaugh wrote.

“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 [Section] 1983 for malicious prosecution,” Kavanaugh wrote.

Kavanaugh added that police officers will still be protected from civil suits in such cases by qualified immunity and the requirement that plaintiffs will have to show absence of probable cause.

Justice Samuel Alito Jr. dissented in an opinion joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch. He said the Supreme Court “has never held that the Fourth Amendment houses a malicious-prosecution claim,” and the majority’s analysis is “far too cursory.”

“What the court has done is to recognize a novel hybrid claim of uncertain scope that has no basis in the Constitution and is almost certain to lead to confusion,” Alito wrote. Instead of creating a new hybrid claim, the Supreme Court should simply hold that a malicious-prosecution claim can’t be brought under the Fourth Amendment, Alito said.

The case is Thompson v. Clark. Hat tip to SCOTUSblog.

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