Supreme Court Clarifies Fourth Amendment 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Malicious Prosecution Claims
The Supreme Court, on April 4, 2022, held in a 6-3 opinion in Thompson v. Clark (2022) 142 S.Ct. 1332, that a plaintiff who brings a Fourth Amendment claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“Section 1983”) for malicious prosecution need only show the underlying criminal prosecution ended without a conviction to demonstrate the favorable termination element of the claim.
In January 2014, Petitioner Larry Thompson was charged and detained with obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest. Before trial, the prosecution moved to dismiss the charges, and the trial judge in turn dismissed the case. Neither the prosecutor nor the trial judge explained why the charges and case were dropped. Thereafter, Thompson brought a Section 1983 claim for malicious prosecution in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, alleging the police officers who initiated the criminal proceedings did so “maliciously” and without probable cause. To prevail on a claim for malicious prosecution under previous precedent, Thompson had to show his criminal prosecution ended not merely without a conviction, but also with an “affirmative indication” of his innocence. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment for the officers.
The Supreme Court granted cert to resolve the question of what a favorable termination entailed. Because Thompson had shown his criminal prosecution ended without a conviction, the Court found the underlying case resolved in Thompson’s favor. The Court reversed the judgment of the Second Circuit and remanded for further proceedings consistent with the Court’s holding.
Of note, the Court reasoned that requiring a plaintiff to show his prosecution ended with an affirmative indication of innocence – rather than showing it merely ended without a conviction – was not necessary to protect officers from unwarranted civil suits. The Court explained a plaintiff would still have to overcome the hurdles of showing the absence of probable cause and that officers were not entitled to qualified immunity. Thus, while Thompson has made malicious prosecution claims a bit easier to plead for plaintiffs, the necessary elements of probable cause and qualified immunity remain intact.
A copy of the Court’s opinion can be found here: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/21pdf/20-659_3ea4.pdf
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