The U.S. Supreme Court made it easier for plaintiffs to bring certain civil-rights claims after their criminal cases end, rejecting the predominant standard throughout the country that was more burdensome.
To bring so-called malicious-prosecution suits in federal court, plaintiffs only need to show their criminal cases ended without convictions, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote for the 6-3 majority on Monday.
The prevailing standard in the lower courts had required plaintiffs to show affirmative indications of innocence, a rule that Kavanaugh called “upside-down” at the October oral argument.
Requiring innocence proof “would seem to have the perverse consequence of ensuring that some of the most deserving plaintiffs, those who were falsely accused and whose cases were dismissed early on, could not sue unless they could show, dig into the prosecutor’s mindset, whereas those who went to trial could sue,” Kavanaugh said at the argument.
He was joined in the opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Amy Coney Barrett. Justice Samuel Alito dissented, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch.
Amir Ali, the lawyer who argued for the plaintiff’s side at the high court, emphasized the stakes of Monday’s ruling.
“Until today, police officers who framed an innocent person—for instance falsifying or planting evidence—could get a free pass,” said Ali, executive director of the MacArthur Justice Center. “After the bogus charges were dismissed, the innocent person whose life had been upended had no recourse in court. That unjust rule applied across most of the country.”
“Not anymore,” Ali said. “Today’s Supreme Court opinion unqualifiedly held that the innocent person can bring a federal civil rights action against the officer.”
He called the ruling “a welcome and much needed step toward greater accountability when officers engage in misconduct and abuse the public trust.”
The New York City Law Department, which represented the government, didn’t immediately return a request for comment on the ruling, which stemmed from the dismissed criminal case of Larry Thompson.
New York state prosecutors dropped Thompson’s obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest charges “in the interest of justice,” without elaboration.
Among the civil claims Thompson then pursued against the officers in federal court was malicious prosecution. He lost other claims at trial but the malicious-prosecution claim was blocked because he couldn’t show affirmative indications of innocence.
Under the Supreme Court’s 1994 decision in Heck v. Humphrey, plaintiffs can’t bring such claims unless criminal proceedings terminate in their favor. Thompson’s case called on the justices to decide what that means in these situations.
Most federal appeals courts that considered the issue, including the New York-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which ruled against Thompson, had used the affirmative indication of innocence standard.
The Supreme Court rejected that approach Monday, reversing the Second Circuit and sending his case back for further review.
Thompson and his supporters urged the justices to adopt the Atlanta-based Eleventh Circuit’s requirement: that the criminal case ended in a manner not inconsistent with innocence. Under that standard, claims would still be barred if a defendant gets convicted and loses on appeal, but claims following more ambiguous situations like Thompson’s could proceed.
And though the plaintiff’s side prevailed at the high court, Kavanaugh stressed that officers in Thompson’s case and others “are still protected by the requirement that the plaintiff show the absence of probable cause and by qualified immunity.”
The case is Thompson v. Clark, U.S., No. 20-659.