Author Topic: Criminal proceedings reach “favorable termination” when they end without conviction  (Read 92 times)

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Online Elderberry

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SCOTUSblog By Howard M. Wasserman 4/4/2022

A plaintiff bringing a damages claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for constitutional violations arising in the criminal-justice process “need only show that his prosecution ended without a conviction” and not “with some affirmative indication of innocence,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote for a six-justice majority in Thompson v. Clark. Justice Samuel Alito dissented, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch.


Larry Thompson was charged with resisting arrest and obstructing a government investigation when he attempted to stop police from entering his apartment in response to a false call about child abuse. The prosecution moved to dismiss “in the interest of justice” and a New York trial court dismissed the matter. Thompson sued for damages under Section 1983, which allows individuals to sue state actors for violating their constitutional rights. He alleged a variety of Fourth Amendment violations. The claim before the Supreme Court alleged malicious prosecution (also described as unreasonable seizure pursuant to legal process) against one responding officer, Pagiel Clark, who signed a criminal complaint during Thompson’s initial post-arrest detention.

Kavanaugh’s opinion for the court

Kavanaugh began by affirming that precedent from the court and lower courts recognized claims for unreasonable seizure pursuant to legal process under the Fourth Amendment. This constitutional claim is analogous to the tort of malicious prosecution, as the gravamen of both is initiation of criminal charges without probable cause. The elements of the constitutional claim match those of the tort. A Fourth Amendment plaintiff must show the criminal proceeding was initiated without probable cause, initiated for a purpose other than bringing the defendant to justice, and terminated in favor of the defendant. The final element serves multiple purposes. It avoids parallel civil and criminal proceedings, precludes inconsistent civil and criminal judgments, and prevents criminal defendants from using civil litigation as collateral attacks on criminal proceedings.

The parties disputed what favorable termination means — whether the plaintiff must show an affirmative indication of innocence (such as acquittal or dismissal of charges with an express judicial finding of insufficient evidence) or whether she must show that the proceedings did not produce a conviction. Looking at American tort law as of 1871 (when Congress enacted the Ku Klux Klan Act, of which Section 1983 was a part), the court found that American courts and treatises were largely in agreement: A malicious-prosecution claim was available when criminal proceedings ended and could not be revived, such as where the prosecutor abandoned the case or the trial court dismissed without explanation. Kavanaugh rejected contrary authority on malicious prosecution, including an outlier decision from the Rhode Island Supreme Court, modern understandings of malicious prosecution, and authorities defining when cases have or have not terminated. None alters the basic principle that if a proceeding has terminated (however terminated is defined), the termination is favorable when there is no conviction.


Offline Kamaji

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Will have to think about this one.  I'm inclined to agree with Kavanaugh, but will have to think through the possible consequences of this, such as whether it would disincentivize prosecutors from dropping ill-founded cases "in the interests of justice" and incentivize them to follow through on those cases, particularly offering "sweetheart" deals to plead to much lesser charges, just to avoid the government having to pay for damages.