Thompson v. Clark: Malicious prosecution claim does not require showing prior prosecution was dismissed due to innocence
A plaintiff alleging a claim for malicious prosecution need only show his prior prosecution ended without a conviction, in order to satisfy the favorable termination element for such claims, the U.S. Supreme Court held April 4 in Thompson v. Clark.
Larry Thompson was charged with resisting arrest and obstructing governmental administration, after he tried to prevent police from entering his apartment without a warrant.
Before trial, the prosecution moved to dismiss the charges, and the trial judge dismissed the case. Neither the prosecutor nor judge explained why the case was dismissed.
Thompson later brought a Section 1983 claim against the officers who had arrested and charged him. He alleged a Fourth Amendment claim for malicious prosecution for seizing him.
The district court denied Thompson’s claim based on Second Circuit precedent that requires a plaintiff show his prior criminal prosecution ended with some “affirmative indication of innocence.” Thompson’s dismissal, without explanation, failed to meet that test.
The Second Circuit affirmed.
The Supreme Court reversed, in a 6-3 opinion.
Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 created federal tort liability for state and local officers for violation of constitutional rights.
“To determine the elements of a constitutional claim under Sec. 1983, this Court’s practice is to first look to the elements of the most analogous tort as of 1871 when Sec. 1983 was enacted”, the Court said.
At that time, proof of malicious prosecution required that the prosecution was instituted without probable cause; that the motive for prosecution was “malicious,” i.e., for a purpose other than bringing a defendant to justice; and that the prosecution had “terminated in the acquittal or discharge of the accused.”
The favorable termination requirement avoided parallel criminal and civil litigation, inconsistent criminal and civil outcomes, and prevented civil suits from being used improperly to attack criminal judgments.
“In most American courts that had considered the question as of 1871, the favorable termination element of a malicious prosecution claim was satisfied so long as the prosecution ended without a conviction,” the Court said.
A plaintiff “did not need to show that his prosecution had ended in some affirmative indication of innocence,” the Court said.
This result is consistent with the “values and purposes” of the Fourth Amendment, the Court said.
“The question of whether a criminal defendant was wrongly charged does not logically depend on whether the prosecutor or court explained why the prosecution was dismissed,” the Court said.
“In addition, requiring the plaintiff to show that his prosecution ended with an affirmative indication of innocence would paradoxically foreclose a Sec. 1983 claim when the government’s case was weaker and dismissed without explanation before trial, but allow a claim when the government’s evidence was substantial enough to proceed to trial,” the Court said.
“Finally, requiring a plaintiff to show that his prosecution ended with an affirmative indication of innocence is not necessary to protect officers from unwarranted civil suits – among other things, officers are still protected by the requirement that the plaintiff show the absence of probable cause and by qualified immunity,” the Court concluded.
Justice Alito, joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, dissented.