In what amounted to a divisive decision by the Supreme Court – 6 to 3, with three of the conservative justices joining the liberals in the majority – on April 4, 2022, a new precedent has been set making it easier to sue police and prosecutors regarding malicious prosecution.
All of this being the result of a rather innocuous event: diaper rash.
Larry Thompson, from Brooklyn, was living with his then fiancée, now wife, and their newborn baby. In addition to the new family, Thompson and his wife, Talleta, also lived with her sister, Camille Watson. Watson, who was living with Thompson and his wife so they could care for her due to apparent mental illness, called 911 to report that Thompson was sexually abusing his newborn baby.
As a result, the EMTs arrived and, unaware that they had been called, Thompson dismissed them, saying that no one had called 911. Undeterred, the EMTs returned to Thompson’s apartment, this time with four police officers in tow. Thompson, asserting his Fourth Amendment right, once again denied them entry, telling them that they could not enter without a warrant.
In staunch opposition to Thompson’s protest, the police entered anyway, and Thompson was thrown to the floor and handcuffed.
The EMTs, concerned about the wellbeing of the baby did a cursory inspection and discovered red marks. They then took the baby to the hospital where doctors discovered no signs of sexual abuse; instead, they discovered that the baby had diaper rash.
Meanwhile, Thompson was arrested and hauled off to jail where he spent two days before being released. While in jail, the NYPD officers filed a criminal complaint that accused Thompson of obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest.
In an attempt to avoid the subsequent trial, the prosecutors offered Thompson a plea deal that would wipe his record clean. Thompson, knowing his rights had been violated, refused. As a result – and without explanation – the prosecutors dropped all charges.
But this was not enough for Thompson. He knew his rights had been violated and, as such, deserved recompense.
Alleging several constitutional violations, including a Fourth Amendment claim for malicious prosecution, Thompson filed suit under Section 1983 against the officers, saying that they had entered his house without probable cause.
Under Section 1983, which provides an individual the right to sue state officials (even police officers) for civil rights violations, the concept of unconstitutional malicious prosecution has historically been a hot-button issue, and this case is no different.
The problem arises when determining what constitutes malicious prosecution and how one goes about to prove it. In this case, citing precedent, the lower courts determined that the fact that Thompson’s criminal prosecution ended without a conviction was not enough. To maintain the Fourth Amendment claim under Section 1983, he would have to show that the criminal prosecution ended with a “favorable termination,” meaning his innocence affirmed by the court.
The District Court, bound by the above precedent (see Lanning v. Glens Falls, 908 F. 3d 19, 22), decided that because Thompson could not provide evidence as to why his case was dismissed, he did not fulfill the requirement to maintain the Fourth Amendment claim under Section 1983. Thompson would bring his suit to the Second Circuit, where the District Court decision was affirmed.
Then, in a move that shocked many, the Supreme Court of the United States decided to grant certiorari, a writ/order where a higher court reviews a decision of a lower court. Ultimately, the Court had two primary concerns to address: What constitutes “favorable termination” under the Fourth Amendment, and how does it apply under Section 1983 for malicious prosecution?
Justice Kavanaugh, one of three conservative justices that sided with the three liberals, wrote the majority opinion, which included a look back to American malicious prosecution tort law as of 1871, when Section 1983 was enacted. By doing so, the Courts determined that the consensus at the time was that a plaintiff did not require “affirmative indication of innocence” to prove favorable termination.
Siding with Thompson, the Court determined, via a 6 to 3 decision, that “for the purposes of the Fourth Amendment claim under Section 1983 for malicious prosecution, a plaintiff does not need to show affirmative indication of innocence,” such as an acquittal. “A plaintiff need only show that his prosecution ended without a conviction. Thompson has satisfied that requirement here.”
In dissent, Justice Alito accused the Court of “creat[ing] a chimera of a constitutional tort by stitching together elements taken from two very different claims: a Fourth Amendment unreasonable seizure claim and a common-law malicious-prosecution claim.” He goes on to state, “Instead of creating a new hybrid claim, we should simply hold that a malicious-prosecution claim may not be brought under the Fourth Amendment. Such a holding would not leave a person in petitioner’s situation without legal protection. Petitioner brought Fourth Amendment claims against respondents for false arrest, excessive force, and unlawful entry, but after trial a jury ruled against him on all those claims.”
Regardless of Alito’s dissenting opinion, the ruling by the Supreme Court to reverse the original decision of the Second Circuit sets a precedent that will be felt for years to come. It is a way to hold prosecutors and police accountable, giving citizens recourse and a way to receive compensation in the event their constitutional rights are violated.