Malicious Prosecution Ruling Impacts Law Enforcement 1983 Liability
DAVID E. MASTAGNI
Mastagni Holstedt, APC
In 2014, Larry Thompson was living with his wife and newborn daughter. Thompson’s sister-in-law suffered from a mental illness and reported to 9-1-1 that Thompson was abusing his child. Officers showed up to Thompson’s home without a warrant, arrested him and charged him with obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest. Thompson was detained for two days. Meanwhile, EMTs took the baby to the hospital where medical professionals found no signs of abuse. The charges against Thompson were dismissed and no explanation was provided by the judge or prosecutor.
Thompson filed several claims alleging constitutional violations against the arresting officers, including a Section 1983 claim for malicious prosecution. The lower courts held that they were required to follow precedent that established that a Section 1983 claim required a plaintiff to show that he obtained a “favorable termination” of the underlying criminal prosecution (Lanning v. Glens Falls, 908 F. 3d 19 ). In other words, Thompson had to show that his case was dismissed based on some indication of his innocence. Thompson was unable to do this as no explanation was provided to him, and therefore, unable to show a “favorable termination,” and so the case was dismissed. The U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the case and reversed the decision of the lower courts.
The Supreme Court delivered the opinion in Thompson v. Clark, which clarified how a Fourth Amendment claim under Section 1983 for malicious prosecution should be analyzed by the courts (596 US_ ). Previously the courts had no clear-cut standard to find that a case ended in a “favorable termination.” Some courts of appeals required some indication that the plaintiff was innocent, while others found that a favorable termination occurred as long as a criminal prosecution ended without a conviction.
In the ruling of Thompson, the Supreme Court clarified that an affirmative indication of innocence is not needed. The court held that Thompson’s showing that his criminal prosecution ended without a conviction is enough to find a “favorable termination” in a malicious prosecution claim.
This ruling will have a profound impact on law enforcement. Those in support of the rule argue that it fosters law enforcement accountability and ensures police officers are held accountable under the Fourth Amendment for false accusations. Arguments against the rule are that it will have a perverse effect for prosecutors who are put in a situation to see cases through to trial to avoid civil litigation. This will flood the court with meritless claims. On the other hand, if charges are dismissed, it will affect police agencies that will have to spend their resources on endless civil litigation.
As a final takeaway, this ruling essentially reframes Section 1983 from being a way for a plaintiff to redress constitutional harms to a standard of which law enforcement must have a clear understanding. Law enforcement officers must be conscious of the implications of this new rule during the stages of investigation and arrest. Mistakes or misunderstandings that could previously be corrected with a dismissal of charges now create a pathway for individuals to sue officers who instigate baseless criminal charges.
About the Author
David Emilio Mastagni is a partner with the law firm of Mastagni Holstedt, APC. His labor and employment law practice includes administrative hearings, trial court and class actions, and appellate litigation in California and the federal courts of the Ninth Circuit. David is an experienced panel attorney for the Peace Officers Research Association of California (PORAC) Legal Defense Fund and frequently lectures on police reforms, constitutional rights, collective bargaining and police discipline. He provided legal analysis and advice on behalf of law enforcement stakeholders during legislative negotiations and hearings over AB 392, SB 230 and SB 1421.