SCOTUS Did A Good Thing For Civil Rights?!
This image or media was taken or created by Matt H. Wade. CC-BY-SA-3.0/Matt H. Wade at Wikipedia

This week, in an opinion written by Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court did a good thing for civil rights.

I'm just as shocked as you are.

Until Tuesday, in most of the country, an innocent person who was framed by the police and charged with a bogus crime could almost never sue the cops who framed him. But in Thompson v. Clark, SCOTUS ruled that innocent people can sue for malicious prosecution after their criminal charges have been dismissed.

Or, as Amir Ali, one of the lawyers on the case put it,

#WorstJustice Samuel Alito dissented, joined by Clarence Thomas, and Neil Gorsuch.

(Full disclosure: I did a civil rights clinic in law school where I was a student lawyer with the MacArthur Justice Center. The MacArthur Justice Center represented petitioner Larry Thompson in this case and I think they're awesome.)

Let's break this down

This is one of those things that is so shocking it doesn't even sound true.

Until now -- I shit you not -- the prevailing rule in many parts of the country, including the entire Second Circuit (home to the nearly 25 million people who live in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont), was that you could almost never sue police who framed you or knowingly charged you with a bogus crime.

Under the old rule, a person could only bring a malicious prosecution/unreasonable seizure claim of a Fourth Amendment violation under the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (42 USC § 1983 or "Section 1983") if the criminal prosecution ended with a "favorable termination" of the criminal charges against them. And several courts, in their infinite wisdom, decided that a case only had a "favorable termination" if a "criminal prosecution ended not merely without a conviction, but also with some affirmative indication of his innocence." That's not generally a thing. So even if police framed an innocent person, and planted fake evidence, and a prosecutor discovered that and dismissed the charges, in most cases, the person who was framed couldn't sue.

This has now changed, with none other than Justice Kegstand writing for the Court,

In sum, we hold that a Fourth Amendment claim under §1983 for malicious prosecution does not require the plaintiff to show that the criminal prosecution ended with some affirmative indication of innocence. A plaintiff need only show that the criminal prosecution ended without a conviction.
Or, to quote the MacArthur Justice Center, because of this ruling, "someone who is the victim of false or fabricated evidence by law enforcement can hold the government accountable for it."
In this particular case, Mr. Thompson was wrongfully accused of abusing his newborn daughter. When police showed up at his house, he told them they couldn't enter without a warrant. The cops responded by roughing him up, arresting him and charging him with child abuse, and searching the house anyway. They took his newborn child to a hospital, which found that some small red marks on the baby were, in fact, diaper rash.

Eventually, the prosecutor and judge in Mr. Thompson's case dismissed the charges "in the interest of justice." As in most pre-trial dismissals of this nature, there were no additional findings. So, despite beating his criminal charges, Thompson couldn't even bring a malicious prosecution claim against the officers who baselessly arrested and charged him.

In Mr. Thompson's civil rights case, the trial court judge wrote that he had to dismiss the malicious prosecution claim, but reminded the Second Circuit that its precedent "can and should be changed" to allow malicious prosecution claims in cases like this one. The Second Circuit said "No thanks" and affirmed the dismissal.

But, amazingly, the Supreme Court stepped in and decided to do the right thing.

Because American law is dumb, most of the opinion dealt with what the rule was for malicious prosecution cases when the Civil Rights Act was enacted in 1871. Fortunately, even back in 1871, a whole bunch of courts were like "Yeah, dismissing the charges outright is a favorable termination, this really shouldn't be that difficult of a question." (Paraphrasing.)

As the Court ruled,

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. And the individual’s ability to seek redress for a wrongful prosecution cannot reasonably turn on the fortuity of whether the prosecutor or court happened to explain why the charges were dismissed.

Makes sense.

In addition, requiring the plaintiff to show that his prosecution ended with an affirmative indication of innocence would paradoxically foreclose a §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. That would make little sense.


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.

So there you have it! An actual good decision, from this Court!

(Note: If you're wondering about qualified immunity, this case hasn't gotten that far yet. The old rule prevented civil rights plaintiffs from even bringing a claim without a "favorable determination," so no qualified immunity analysis has been done yet. So it is entirely likely Mr. Thompson ends up screwed on those grounds. But we shall see!)

But wait ...

We would be remiss if we didn't spend at least a little bit of time mocking the dissenters. Samuel Alito, who has always really wanted to be Antonin Scalia but just isn't good enough at writing to do so, begins his dissent about the Civil Rights Act of 1871 with ... something about The Iliad?

Homer described the mythical chimera as a “grim monster” made of “all lion in front, all snake behind, all goat between.” The Iliad p. 201 (R. Fagles trans. 1990). Today, the Court creates a chimera of a constitutional tort by stitching together elements taken from two very different claims: a Fourth Amendment unreasonable seizure claim and a common-law malicious-prosecution claim.

Greek mythology aside, Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Neil Gorsuch just don't think any malicious prosecution claims should exist, no matter how horrific the police actions. The dissent doesn't get any better; in fact, the ridiculous invocation of The Iliad is the most interesting thing about it.

It's all pretty on-brand for this three, if nothing else.


This is a good decision! From the Supreme Court! In 2022!

As this Supreme Court season moves forward, there is going to be a lot of terrible bullshit. But that just makes it even more important to recognize and celebrate these victories when we get them.

Here's the opinion, in your OPEN THREAD.

[ SCOTUS / Twitter / MacArthur Justice Center ]

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Jamie Lynn Crofts
Jamie Lynn Crofts is sick of your bullshit. When she’s not wrangling cats, she’s probably writing about nerdy legal stuff, rocking out at karaoke, or tweeting about god knows what. Jamie would kindly like to remind everyone that it’s perfectly legal to tell Bob Murray to eat shit.

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