A ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on April 4 will lower the threshold for when someone can sue police for malicious prosecution by eliminating the need to be acquitted as not guilty in order to press charges.
The court ruled 6–3 that in order to bring a civil lawsuit for damages against police, a defendant does not have to be first found guilty by a judge or jury, and prosecutors do not need to admit that they wrongly filed the charges.
The only requirement is that charges be dropped against a defendant before he can sue.
“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,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote for the majority opinion.
“A plaintiff need only show that his prosecution ended without a conviction,” the opinion read.
The case concerned the arrest of Larry Thompson for charges of resisting arrest and obstructing governmental administration.
Thompson was thrown to the ground and arrested after police and EMT’s responded to a call from his mentally ill sister-in-law claiming that Thompson had abused the baby. It was determined afterward that the baby only had a diaper rash, but Thompson spent two days in prison.
Prosecutors eventually dropped the case against Thompson without explanation, and he sued on allegations of malicious prosecution — when one is sued without probable cause and with malicious intent.
Michael Bromwich, a former prosecutor, defense lawyer and inspector general for the U.S. Justice Department, said the ruling would allow for redress for those wronged by malicious prosecution when charges are dismissed.
“I think it’s a long-overdue ruling. Prosecutors get away with way too much when they realize they may not have a case and want to protect law enforcement from liability.”
The case will now be sent back to the lower courts, where law enforcement officials will have an opportunity to raise defenses.
“These civil cases are tough to win, and when you do win them, the damages are often very small, so it can be very hard to find a lawyer,” Georgetown University Law professor Paul Butler said.
The court did not maintain an opinion on whether there was probable cause to persecute Thompson or whether the officer was entitled to qualified immunity; the decision just allowed for Thompson to raise a civil suit.
Marie Miller, an attorney for the nonprofit Institute for Justice, said the decision eliminates protections for government employees who violate constitutional rights and that it protects the principle of “innocent until proven guilty.”
Previously, prosecutors and plaintiffs had a “shield” when bringing unlawful cases against defendants, knowing that they could simply drop the case and avoid malicious prosecution damages. This “shield,” Miller stated, “flipped the principle of innocent until proven guilty on its head. It also incentivized prosecutors to charge people with crimes they did not commit to shield officers from liability.”
Dissenting justices, including Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, said the decision goes against precedents and will add “almost certain confusion” to future cases.