U.S. Supreme Court Clarifies “Favorable Termination” Element of Fourth Amendment Malicious Prosecution Civil Rights Claims
On April 4, 2022, in the case of Thompson v. Clark, No. 20-659, the United States Supreme Court (in a 6-3 decision) clarified the legal standard used to determine whether the plaintiff in a civil rights lawsuit based upon malicious prosecution obtained a favorable termination of the underlying criminal case.
In Thompson, the plaintiff was living with his then-fiancé (now wife) and their newborn baby in an apartment in Brooklyn, New York. The plaintiff’s sister-in-law, who apparently suffered from mental illness, called 911 to report that the plaintiff was sexually abusing the baby. EMT’s and police came to the apartment, entered without a warrant, and ultimately arrested the plaintiff and charged him with resisting arrest and obstruction of governmental administration. Examination of the baby showed no signs of abuse. After being detained for two days, the plaintiff was released. The charges were later dismissed before trial without explanation.
The plaintiff sued under the federal civil rights statute 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging several constitutional violations, including a Fourth Amendment malicious prosecution claim. The elements of a malicious prosecution claim that must be proven by the plaintiff are: (1) the prosecution was brought without probable cause; (2) the prosecution acted with malice (meaning without probable cause and for a purpose other than brining the defendant to justice); and (3) the prosecution terminated in favor of the accused. The only issue before the Supreme Court was whether the third element, favorable termination, was established by the plaintiff. Pursuant to Second Circuit precedent (governing decisions by Federal courts in New York, Connecticut and Vermont), to establish favorable termination a plaintiff must prove that the underlying criminal prosecution ended not merely without a conviction but also with some affirmative indication of his innocence. As a result, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York dismissed the plaintiff’s lawsuit (although the Court stated in its opinion that the law should be changed), and the Second Circuit affirmed that decision. The plaintiff then sought review by the Supreme Court, which was granted. It should be noted that cases from both the Third Circuit Court of Appeals (governing Federal courts in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware) and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals (governing Federal courts in Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and the portions of Yellowstone National Bank extending into Montana and Idaho) agree with the Second Circuit, while a case from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (governing Federal courts in Alabama, Florid and Georgia) has determined that favorable termination is established merely by a lack of conviction.
Looking at the elements of the state tort of malicious prosecution at the time that Section 1983 was enacted in 1871, the Court held that the favorable termination prong of a Section 1983 malicious prosecution civil rights claim only requires proof that the prosecution ended without conviction and that there was no need to proof an indication of innocence. The Court stated that the clear majority of American courts did not require proof of innocence, finding only one decision, an 1863 Rhode Island Supreme Court, requiring it. The Court also rejected the argument that requiring proof of innocence will protect police from unwarranted civil lawsuits. The Court explained that officers are still protected by the requirement that a plaintiff prove an absence of probable cause (when there is a fair probability that a crime has been committed) and also by the doctrine of qualified immunity (protecting police from civil lawsuits unless they violated clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known).
In sum, this decision will make it easier to bring Section 1983 malicious prosecution claims in Federal court, including in the Third Circuit.