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Supreme Court Issues Significant Clarification About Malicious Prosecution Claims

By Joseph Fawbush, Esq. | Last updated on

The Supreme Court just made it a little easier to bring a malicious prosecution claim under the Fourth Amendment.

Thompson v. Clark arose when the father of a newborn was arrested and criminally charged for events stemming from his child's diaper rash. The father, Larry Thompson, claimed the state charged him even though prosecutors had no reason to think he committed a crime. In a 6-3 decision, the justices decided in favor of the father. In doing so, they clarified the elements needed to bring a successful civil rights claim against law enforcement who knowingly and wrongfully charge someone with committing a crime.

How Malicious Prosecution Cases Work

Lower courts and SCOTUS have already clarified that prosecuting someone with malicious intent without reasonable grounds they committed a crime violates the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure. The majority affirmed this precedent in Thompson.

To succeed on a claim of malicious prosecution under the Fourth Amendment, the person claiming injury must show that they were the subject of a prosecution that:

  • Involved malice and without probable cause
  • Terminated in the accused's favor (the "favorable termination" rule), and
  • Caused damage to the person falsely accused.

The Supreme Court established the favorable termination rule in 1994's Heck v. Humphrey. The idea is that a defendant must have been found not guilty in a jury trial, had a guilty verdict overturned on appeal, or otherwise show that they "won" the case. But this rule involves some gray areas. Prosecutors have a lot of discretion. They can choose to drop charges against any defendant without giving a reason. If a prosecutor drops a case without explanation, is it resolved in the defendant's favor?

This was the key issue in Thompson v. Clark, which SCOTUS decided on April 4. The Justices held that dropping charges without explanation is, indeed, a win for the defendant, at least for purpose of bringing a malicious prosecution claim under § 1983.

Diaper Rash Leads to Arrest

The facts of Thompson are pretty straightforward. Diaper rash is a common affliction for newborns and babies. It stems from infrequent diaper changes and/or sensitive skin and involves red and inflamed skin in diapered areas. It's a common cause for alarm with new parents, although it is not serious if treated. If more frequent changes don't work, over-the-counter medication is usually enough to clear it up.

But a Brooklyn, New York father ended up arrested for his newborn's diaper rash when his sister-in-law did not recognize the diaper rash for what it was and called the police to report suspected child sexual abuse. The sister-in-law has what the plaintiff labeled "cognitive delays."

EMTs first came to the house, but the Thompsons refused them entry. They came back a short while later, accompanied by police. While the facts are disputed, the end result was authorities taking the newborn to the hospital, where they found no evidence of sexual abuse. Thompson spent two days in jail and was charged with obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest. Both charges were dropped without explanation from either the prosecution or presiding judge.

The father pursued a wrongful conviction claim against the NYPD. However, based on established precedent, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals rightfully held in favor of the NYPD because, until now, a dropped charge did not meet the favorable termination rule.

Majority Opens the Door to More Malicious Prosecution Claims

Justice Kavanaugh wrote the opinion for the court, joined by five other justices. To understand the majority opinion, we must first look at § 1983. Originally part of the Ku Klux Klan Act, this law allows private citizens a right of action for constitutional violations.

To determine whether Thompson needed to show a favorable termination to bring a malicious prosecution claim under the Fourth Amendment, Justice Kavanaugh looked to 1871, when Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan Act. Justice Kavanaugh found that American courts and legal treatises of the time were largely in agreement that a common law claim for malicious prosecution did not require an affirmative resolution for the criminal defendant. As such, American courts today should allow similar claims for malicious prosecution under the Fourth Amendment.

A Clarification or a "Chimera"?

Justices Alito, Thomas, and Gorsuch dissented. The dissent argued that the majority improperly mixed the common-law claim of malicious prosecution with the Fourth Amendment's protection from unreasonable search and seizure, leading to a stitched-together "chimera" of two separate claims. Instead, the dissent argued, the court should have done away with malicious prosecution claims under the Fourth Amendment altogether. Justice Alito wrote that Thompson should only have brought constitutional claims for false arrest, excessive force, and unlawful entry.

But, with a majority in favor of relaxing the "favorable outcome" rule for claims alleging malicious prosecution under the Fourth Amendment, it may be somewhat easier for plaintiffs to satisfy the elements of malicious prosecution moving forward.

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