Does the favorable termination element of a Section 1983 claim alleging unreasonable seizure require a plaintiff to show that the criminal proceedings at issue terminated in a way that affirmatively indicates the plaintiff’s innocence?
This case asks the Supreme Court to determine whether the “favorable termination” element of a Section 1983 claim alleging unreasonable seizure requires a petitioner to show that the criminal proceedings at issue terminated in a way that is consistent with his innocence. Petitioner Larry Thompson brought a Section 1983 claim against his arresting officers for violating his Fourth Amendment rights after his criminal charges were dismissed “in the interest of justice,” with no further explanation regarding Thompson’s innocence or guilt. Thompson claims that his criminal proceedings terminated favorably, but Respondent Paigel Clark—an arresting police officer— argues that Thompson failed to meet this requirement, asserting that charges must be dismissed in a way that affirmatively indicates innocence. This case has important implications for the future of Section 1983 claims, prosecutorial discretion, and police officer accountability.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether the rule that a plaintiff must await favorable termination before bringing a Section 1983 action alleging unreasonable seizure pursuant to legal process requires the plaintiff to show that the criminal proceeding against him has “formally ended in a manner not inconsistent with his innocence,” as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit decided in Laskar v. Hurd, or that the proceeding “ended in a manner that affirmatively indicates his innocence,” as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit decided in Lanning v. City of Glens Falls.
In January 2014, Petitioner Larry Thompson lived with his fiancé, their newborn child, and his fiancé’s sister, Camille Watson, in Brooklyn, New York. Thompson v. Clark at 182. One night, Watson noticed a rash on the newborn child and called 911 to report that Thompson was abusing his child. Id. When Emergency Medical Technicians (“EMT”) arrived, Thompson confronted them, telling them that no one in the apartment had called 911. Id. The EMTs left after telling Thompson that they might have the incorrect address. Id. at 182–83.
Respondent Pagiel Clark (“Clark”), and other police officers, arrived at Thompson’s apartment after receiving reports of possible child abuse and an assault in progress. Id. at 183. The police officers spoke to the EMTs standing outside who told the officers that they had not checked on the newborn child yet because Thompson “seemed ‘aggressive’” and they were uncomfortable. Id.
The police officers tried to enter the apartment, but Thompson told the police officers that they could not enter without a warrant and refused to let them in. Id. One officer tried to enter despite Thompson’s objections, and Thompson shoved him. Id. The officers arrested Thompson. Id. Thompson claims that he did not resist arrest, but the officers acted aggressively, pushing, choking, and hitting him. Id. The officers claim that Thompson resisted his arrest by “flailing his arm” to make handcuffing difficult. Id.
After arresting Thompson, the police officers took his newborn child to the hospital where doctors determined that the newborn child had diaper rash and showed no signs of abuse. Id. The police officers later discovered that Camille Watson suffers from mental illness. Id.
Thompson was charged with obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest. Id. at 184. The charges were dismissed three months later “in the interest of justice.” I Id. at 184–85. The prosecution did not provide any further explanation for the dismissal. Id. at 185.
Thompson then brought a Section 1983 civil claim against the arresting officers for violating of his Fourth Amendment rights, alleging, along with other claims no longer at issue, malicious prosecution. Brief for Petitioner, Larry Thompson at 9. Section 1983 claims for malicious persecution require showing favorable termination; that is, Thompson is required to show that criminal proceedings against him “terminated in his favor.” Id.
The District Court Judge in the Eastern District of New York found that Thompson failed to establish that the criminal proceedings terminated in his favor. Id. at 10. The court relied on Second Circuit precedent, which requires an affirmative indication of innocence to prove that proceedings terminated in the defendant’s favor. Id. Ultimately, the court decided that the evidence did not affirmatively indicate Thompson’s innocence. Id.
Thompson appealed, and the Second Circuit issued a summary order, stating it was bound by its precedent and would remain bound until either the Second Circuit sitting en banc or the Supreme Court overruled the decision. Id. at 11. The Second Circuit denied rehearing en banc, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari on March 8, 2021. Id. at 11.
REQUIREMENTS OF THE FAVORABLE-TERMINATION RULE
Thompson argues that the Second Circuit incorrectly interpreted the requirements of the rule that a plaintiff must await favorable termination before bringing a Section 1983 action alleging unreasonable seizure pursuant to legal process. Brief for Petitioner, Larry Thompson at 16. Thompson asserts that the rule requires the plaintiff to show only that the criminal proceeding against him has “formally ended in a manner not inconsistent with his innocence,” as the Eleventh Circuit decided in Laskar v. Hurd. Id. As such, Thompson contends the Second Circuit erred in requiring that a civil plaintiff must prove that the previous criminal case ended in an “affirmative indication” of the plaintiff’s innocence before the plaintiff pursues a cause of action arising from the claim. Id. According to Thompson, the Supreme Court imposed the “favorable termination” requirement to address concerns about parallel civil and criminal litigation which could lead to conflicting judgments. Id. at 18. To support his argument, Thomas highlights language from the Court indicating that convictions expunged by executive order or declared invalid by another state tribunal would satisfy the favorable termination requirement. Id. at 21. Thompson elaborates that neither of those terminations indicates the defendant’s innocence. Id. Thompson concludes that a civil plaintiff bringing a malicious prosecution claim needs only to show that the relevant criminal proceeding is at its end, not that the way in which it ended suggested the plaintiff’s innocence. Id. at 17.
Thompson also contends that there was no consensus among the states requiring a showing of affirmative indications of innocence when the federal government enacted Section 1983 in 1871—and thus, the court should not recognize one now. Id. at 22. Thompson maintains that when inquiring about the requirements of a claim under Section 1983, the Court has held it should look first to the legal consensus when Section 1983 was adopted in 1871. Id. By Thompson’s account, both English common-law courts and most American state courts did not require a plaintiff in a malicious prosecution suit to demonstrate that the underlying criminal case was resolved in a way that affirmatively indicated the plaintiff’s innocence. Id. at 26–27. Finally, Thompson claims that those modern courts that have adopted the affirmative indications of innocence standard mistakenly base their decision on the Restatement (Second) of Torts, instead of the legal consensus when Section 1983 was enacted. Id. at 31
In response, Clark maintains that the Second Circuit correctly applied the favorable termination rule. Brief for Respondent, Police Officer Pagiel Clark et al. at 25. Clark argues that the rule requires the plaintiff to show the proceeding “ended in a manner that affirmatively indicates his innocence,” as the Second Circuit decided in Lanning v. City of Glens Falls. Id. Therefore, according to Clark, the dismissal of all charges against a criminal defendant does not constitute “favorable termination” such that the defendant can bring a claim for malicious prosecution arising from the criminal proceeding. Id. Clark relies on the seven circuits and twenty state courts which use the same standard to support his claim. Id. at 34. Clark further maintains that an affirmative indications of innocence standard is more consistent with the principles underlying malicious prosecution suits and that courts tend to follow the principles underlying malicious prosecution claims “strictly.” Id. at 32. Clark cites to courts and treatises that caution against allowing litigants who avoided criminal liability through technicalities to be able to initiate civil action against the law enforcement officers who rightfully arrested them. Id. at 33.
Moreover, Clark asserts that, based on a survey of the highest state courts and legal commentary, the law in 1871 was unsettled on whether the favorable-termination requirement of a claim for malicious prosecution obligated a civil plaintiff to meet the affirmative indications of innocence standard. Id. at 26. As such, Clark contends that the court should look at modern jurisprudence, which he argues advocates for including the affirmative indications of innocence standard. Id at 28. Clark highlights that the federal circuits are nearly unanimous—except for the Eleventh Circuit—in adopting the affirmative indications of innocence standard for malicious prosecution claims. Id. at 30. Clark also notes that the Eleventh Circuit’s reasoning is based on an outdated historical interpretation rather than modern jurisprudence, further proving the legitimacy of an affirmative indication of innocence standard.
EXISTENCE OF THOMPSON’S CLAIM UNDER THE FOURTH AMENDMENT
Thompson contends that the Second Circuit was justified in recognizing the existence of his Section 1983 claim. Brief for Petitioner at 19. Thompson argues that he has a cause of action under Section 1983, because Clark violated Thompson’s Fourth Amendment rights by unreasonably seizing Thompson under the guise of legal process. Id. at 16. And, because Thompson interprets the Court’s decision in Manuel v. City of Joilet as recognizing that this claim does in fact arise under the Fourth Amendment, he concludes that he brings a cognizable action against Clark. Id. at 19 n. 6.
Clark counters that the Second Circuit erred in recognizing Thompson’s claim at all. Brief for Respondent at 14. Clark maintains that malicious prosecution claims, which are based on groundless prosecution, do not arise under the Fourth Amendment, which is focused on unreasonable seizures. Id. at 17. Clark continues that a malicious persecution claim cannot be forced under the Fourth Amendment, explaining that courts historically did not require a plaintiff bringing a common-law malicious prosecution claim to show a seizure, the key element of a Fourth Amendment violation. Id. And according to Clark, the jurisdictions that have now added seizure requirements to malicious prosecution claim do so in name only, as plaintiffs can satisfy the requirement by pointing to a pending criminal proceeding. Id. at 18. As such, Clark urges the Supreme Court, which has yet to recognize a malicious prosecution claim arising under the Fourth Amendment, to join the three circuit courts that have expressly rejected the existence of such claims. Id. at 15–16. Clark asserts that the court will only muddy an already confusing area of the law even father if they refuse to rule on the existence of the claim Id. at 16.
DOES THE FOURTH AMENDMENT HAVE A DISTINCT FAVORABLE TERMINATION RULE?
Thompson asserts the Second Circuit erred in finding that there are two favorable termination rules under a malicious prosecution claim: Section 1983’s accrual favorable-termination rule, which only requires the outcome not be inconsistent with innocence, and a separate substantive favorable-termination rule under Fourth Amendment, requiring indication of innocence. Brief for Petitioner at 32. Thompson notes that his Section 1983 claim is based on an alleged violation of his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizure, and therefore, the relevant inquiry under the Fourth Amendment is whether he was subject to an unreasonable seizure without probable cause, not an additional favorable-termination requirement. Id. at 33. Thompson suggests that the Second Circuit may have confused the Fourth Amendment’s substantive requirement of showing a lack of probable cause with the Section 1983 prerequisite requirement of showing favorable termination. Id. at 33. Accordingly, Thompson argues, the court should have applied Section 1983’s favorable-termination requirement—defined as not inconsistent with innocence—to his claim. Id. at 32–33.
In response, Clark counters that even if Thompson’s malicious prosecution claim does exist, a claim under the Fourth Amendment does not require a showing of favorable termination; therefore, Thompson’s claim may not even implicate the question presented to the court. Brief for Respondent at 21. Clark argues that the Court has imposed a favorable-termination requirement based on the nature of individual claims, and in support, he points to Supreme Court cases which held that some Fourth Amendment claims do not require such a showing. Id. at 21–23. Clark further maintains that imposing a favorable termination rule on the claim at hand would contradict the jury’s verdict against Thompson at trial, which Clark alleges has impliedly found that Clark did not deprive Thompson’s liberty. Id. at 24. Finally, Clark argues that if the Supreme Court finds that malicious prosecution claims exist under the Fourth Amendment and that the Fourth Amendment requires a showing of favorable termination, the Second Circuit’s indication of innocence approach to favorable termination is correct. Id. at 25.
POTENTIAL FOR SKEWED INCENTIVES AND UNDERMINED CONFIDENCE IN THE JUDICIAL SYSTEM
Bronx Defenders, in support of Thompson, argue that the rule requiring affirmative indications of innocence may result in perverse incentives for prosecutors and police officers. Brief of Amici Curiae Bronx Defenders et al., in Support of Petitioner at 15. They assert that prosecutors may avoid indicating a defendant’s innocence by purposefully giving vague reasons for dismissing charges so that defendants cannot bring civil actions against officials. Id. Home School Legal Defense Association (“HSLDA”) claims that the government could easily abuse its power by noticing officials’ misconduct, bringing charges against the victim of the misconduct, and dropping those charges “in the interest of justice” to protect the officials from civil actions. Brief of Amicus Curiae Home School Legal Defense Association, in Support of Petitioner at 5-6. HLSDA argues this may be particularly problematic in child welfare cases where searches are often done without warrants. Id. at 6.
A group of Current and Former Prosecutors (“Prosecutors”) further argue that if the judicial system enables prosecutors and police offers to abuse their power and leaves defendants without recourse, the public will lose trust in the judiciary. Brief of Amici Curiae Current and Former Prosecutors et al., in Support of Petitioner at 16. Particularly with respect to police officers, they assert that the public may distrust the judiciary if it hinders police accountability. Id. at 16-17.
District Attorneys Association of the State of New York (“District Attorneys”), in support of Clark, counter that only requiring that termination not be inconsistent with innocence, skews incentives. Brief of Amicus Curiae District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, in Support of Respondent at 25. They assert that prosecutors have broad discretion to dismiss claims for a variety of reasons, many unrelated to the accused’s innocence. Id. at 18. District Attorneys claim that the law should not interfere with this discretion, which often leads to just outcomes, including for guilty defendants. Id. at 25. If all dismissed cases lead to litigation, they argue, prosecutors will face the difficult decision of either pursuing charges until trial (which could result in harsher penalties for defendants) or tying up police resources in endless litigation following dismissals. Id.
District Attorneys maintain that prosecutors have a sufficient gatekeeping system to prevent unfounded charges against defendants. Id. at 9. They elaborate that prosecutors cannot bring charges without sufficient evidence, preventing most unfounded charges. Id. at 9. District Attorneys point out that prosecutors are elected to serve their constituents, and the central function is seeking justice for society. Id. at 15. District Attorneys assert that prosecutors best serve their communities when they have the discretion to create flexible solutions without fearing civil litigation backlash. Id. at 15–16.
EFFICIENCY AND COST-SAVING CONSIDERATIONS
American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”), in support of Thompson, claim that the affirmative indications of innocence standard will be costly and inefficient for the court system. Brief of Amici Curiae American Civil Liberties Union et al. (“ACLU”), in Support of Petitioner at 10. A group of current and former prosecutors, Department of Justice officials, and judges (“Prosecutors”) highlight that it is impractical to force prosecutors to provide full explanations for the large number of cases they dismiss. Brief of Prosecutors at 9. They point out that prosecutors do not have the time to provide detailed explanations. Id. This is particularly relevant for the high volume of misdemeanors and other low-level crimes that are dismissed, often by an assistant attorney. Id. Prosecutors argue that under the rule requiring affirmative indications of innocence, unless prosecutors provide such detailed reasoning, defendants with dismissed charges are left without recourse. Id. at 10. The ACLU notes that because prosecutors often fail to provide sufficient indications of innocence in their dismissals, defendants who want to file future civil actions must object to the dismissal of their cases, proceed to trial, and hope they are acquitted. Brief of ACLU at 9–10. Bronx Defenders argue that this results in time-consuming, costly litigation in an already over-burdened system. Brief of Bronx Defenders at 10.
District Attorneys counter that the rule requiring indications of innocence is more efficient than merely requiring that termination is not inconsistent with innocence. They allege that prosecutors often dismiss charges against even seemingly guilty defendants due to limited time and resources. Brief of District Attorneys at 12. If Thompson’s rule is adopted, District Attorneys argue, then guilty defendants can take advantage of a prosecutor’s discretion by bringing frivolous Section 1983 claims. Id. at 25. District Attorneys continue by arguing that if defendants can bring claims after any dismissal, it would flood the court with meritless claims. Id. at 19. District Attorneys assert that courts have historically viewed Section 1983 claims with caution and seek to manage them. District Attorneys thus maintain that the affirmative indications of innocence standard provides a necessary gatekeeping function to avoid meritless claims. Id. at 25–26.
- Daniel Graziano, US Supreme Court takes up ‘favorable termination’ case, rejects Trump’s final election challenge, Jurist (Mar. 9, 2021).