Criminal Defendants Can File Section 1983 Lawsuits Without Proof of Actual Innocence
After his criminal case in Brooklyn was dismissed before trial, Larry Thompson filed a Section 1983 lawsuit. In that lawsuit, he claimed the NYPD had maliciously prosecuted him. While having proof that the criminal case had been terminated in his favor, Larry lacked proof of his actual innocence. His lawsuit was dismissed, but he appealed. On April 4, 2022, the Supreme Court weighed in on whether Larry’s lawsuit should have been allowed to proceed.
What Is a Section 1983 Lawsuit?
The United States Code, or USC, refers to a set of laws for the United States. Back in 1871, Section 1982 of Chapter 42 of the USC was enacted as part of the Ku Klux Klan Act. Under that section, a plaintiff can file a lawsuit for violations of their civil rights. In order to file a Section 1983 lawsuit, a plaintiff must allege the following:
- The conduct complained of was committed by a person acting under the color of law, –and-
- That conduct deprived the plaintiff of a constitutional right.
What does “under the color of law” mean? Specifically, it means that one or more persons are acting under the power given to them by a governmental agency. This can be a local, state, or federal agency. As to the constitutional rights, those are the rights protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States.
In terms of damages, plaintiffs who litigate a successful lawsuit generally receive compensatory damages. This means that the money award is in an amount that would make the plaintiff whole for the damage or loss they experienced. Moreover, they may be able to seek attorney’s fees.
Factual Background to Larry’s Lawsuit
In January 2014, Larry was living with his fiancée and their newborn daughter in Brooklyn. One day, Larry’s sister-in-law called 911 and claimed that Larry was sexually abusing the baby. Apparently, the sister-in-law suffered from a mental health issue.
When EMTs arrived at Larry’s apartment, he told them no one had called 911 and refused their entry. Shortly thereafter, EMTs returned with members of the NYPD but Larry would still not let them in the apartment. Nonetheless, officers entered the apartment. They arrested Larry, charging him with Resisting Arrest and Obstruction of Governmental Administration.
For the next two days, Larry was held in jail before being released by a judge. In the meantime, a hospital examination found no signs of abuse to Larry’s newborn daughter. At some point after Larry was released, the charges were dismissed “in the interests of justice.” This was before trial and without any explanation by the prosecutor or judge.
After the criminal case was dismissed, Larry filed a lawsuit against the NYPD under Section 1983. In his lawsuit, he claimed constitutional violations for “malicious prosecution” and for being subject to “unlawful, illegal and excessive detention.” These claims were founded in the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. However, his lawsuit was dismissed. While Larry’s criminal case was terminated in his favor, there was no acknowledgement that he was actually innocent. Larry appealed.
The Supreme Court’s Decision
On Tuesday, April 4, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the opinion in Thompson v. Clark. The majority’s opinion was authored by Justice Kavanaugh (joined by 5 others). Focusing on what “terminated in favor of the defendant” meant, the Court stated this included where a prosecutor abandoned the case or the trial court dismissed without explanation. As such, the Supreme Court held Larry’s Section 1983 lawsuit should not have been dismissed for failing to show actual innocence, as his criminal case had been terminated in his favor.
The Court continued that his claims should not depend on the “fortuity” of whether the court or prosecutor explained why charges were dismissed. Otherwise, there would exist a paradox – those who were tried and acquitted could make Section 1983 claims, while those whose cases were weak and dismissed before trial could not.
As a result, Larry’s case will be returned to the lower court. Now, the lower court must consider whether Larry was seized for Fourth Amendment purposes, whether the NYPD had probable cause to arrest, and whether the officer is entitled to qualified immunity.
In a dissenting opinion by Justice Alito (joined by 2 others), the argument that the Fourth Amendment claims must be analyzed under the framework of a malicious prosecution tort was rejected. Additionally, the opinion stated that a malicious prosecution claim should not be brought under the Fourth Amendment. Instead, Larry should have claimed false arrest, excessive force, and unlawful entry.
- Thompson v. Clark, U.S. Supreme Court slip op. 20-659 (decided Apr. 4, 2022). Available at: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/21pdf/20-659_3ea4.pdf (last accessed Apr. 5, 2022).
- Howard M. Wasserman, “Criminal proceedings reach ‘favorable termination’ when they end without conviction,” SCOTUSblog (Apr. 4, 2022). Available at: https://www.scotusblog.com/2022/04/criminal-proceedings-reach-favorable-termination-when-they-end-without-conviction/ (last accessed Apr. 5, 2022).
- 42 U.S.C. § 1983, “Civil action for deprivation of rights.” Available at: https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/USCODE-2009-title42/pdf/USCODE-2009-title42-chap21-subchapI-sec1983.pdf (last accessed Apr. 5, 2022).
Image: CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication