Justices Nix Need For Rulings Of Innocence In Anti-Cop Suits

By Marco Poggio | April 4, 2022, 4:25 PM EDT ·

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday said former criminal defendants suing law enforcement for alleged Fourth Amendment violations don't need to show their underlying cases ended with an affirmation of their innocence, only that they ended without a conviction — a major win for plaintiffs in police accountability cases.

In a 6-3 decision siding with Larry Thompson, a Navy veteran who sued officers of the New York Police Department for civil rights violations following an arrest, the court struck down a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit that said he didn't have a right to sue without first proving he was innocent of the offenses he was charged with.

Critics of that requirement said it gave prosecutors extensive power in dooming a former criminal defendant's prospect of suing his arresting officers, by, for instance, dismissing the charges against the defendant with little explanation. Courts often end criminal cases in a similar fashion. When they do, a defendant cannot prove he or she was innocent of the charges.

In an opinion penned by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the high court squarely rejected the innocence requirement, taking away from district attorneys and courts the power to shut down potential lawsuits against police officers.

"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," the opinion says.

The court also said the innocence requirements created a paradox where a Fourth Amendment claim would be barred in cases where prosecutors dismissed charges due to a lack of strong evidence against a defendant and allow one in cases where the evidence was good enough to go to trial.

"That would make little sense," said the opinion, which was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Amy Coney Barrett.

Justice Samuel Alito filed a dissenting opinion that was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch.

With its decision, the court puts an end to a 7-1 circuit split that emerged since its 1994 decision in Heck v. Humphrey , which found that a defendant cannot bring a lawsuit under Section 1983 of Title 42 of the U.S. Code, which gives individuals the right to sue state government employees for damages over civil rights violations, until after there has been a "termination of the prior criminal proceeding in [the individual's] favor."

Seven circuits adopted a strict interpretation of what favorable termination means, saying it required an affirmative indication of innocence, something rare in a criminal justice system focused only on determining whether or not there are reasonable doubts that a defendant is guilty.

The Second Circuit adopted that stringent rule in its 2018 decision in Lanning v. Glens Falls .

Only one, the Eleventh Circuit, interpreted the favorable termination requirement to mean that a defendant only had to show that he or she was never convicted of the crimes charged before being able to turn around and sue the police.

Arguing before the court in October on Thompson's behalf, Amir Ali, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center, attacked the innocence requirement as "wrong" and urged the court to adopt the Eleventh Circuit's standard.

"The court should adopt common sense that the criminal proceeding terminates in favor of the prosecution when it gets the conviction that it sought. A criminal proceeding terminates in favor of the accused when it doesn't," Ali told the justices.

On Monday, they agreed with him.

Ali told Law360 the court's decision is a "resounding rejection" of a rule that caused valid and serious civil rights claims to be thrown out of court. He called it a "significant and serious step forward toward greater accountability for police officers" who engage in misconduct.

"Before today's decision, police officers could quite literally frame an innocent person for a crime. And they might get a free pass at the end of the day. To add insult to injury, the free pass was given precisely because those false charges were dismissed by the criminal court. That rule governed at the time we started representing Mr. Thompson in this case," Ali said. "Not so anymore, thankfully."

With its decision, the court rebuffed one of the key arguments set forth by Thompson's arresting officers and supported by the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York in an amicus brief: that embracing the Eleventh Circuit rule would pave the way for meritless civil lawsuits against law enforcement officers.

"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, as officers are still protected by the requirement that the plaintiff show the absence of probable cause and by qualified immunity," the opinion says.

Several civil rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the National Police Accountability Project, as well as a bipartisan group of former prosecutors, had filed briefs supporting Thompson.

In January 2014, police broke into Thompson's house and arrested him after he refused to let them in. His sister-in-law had called 911 saying he had been abusing his week-old daughter, but those allegations turned out to be false, as the woman's history of mental illness emerged.

Thompson was charged with obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest, but prosecutors eventually dropped the charges "in the interests of justice."

Thompson sued his arresting officers in federal court in Brooklyn later that year saying they had violated his constitutional rights, but U.S. District Judge Jack. B. Weinstein reluctantly dropped his malicious prosecution claims, saying he was bound to do so by the Second Circuit innocence doctrine.

Thompson's other claims, such as unlawful entry, false arrest and fabricated evidence, failed to convince a jury at trial. In a memorandum following those proceedings, Judge Weinstein, who died in June at age 99, was critical of the Second Circuit rule and said it "should be changed."

Thompson's petition to the Supreme Court presented that opportunity.

In the petition filed in November, Ali told the court the rule ushered in absurd scenarios in which criminal defendants would have to object to their cases being dropped and risk going to trial in the hopes of obtaining an affirmation of innocence that would preserve their right to sue the arresting officers. The court agreed in March to hear the case.

Attorneys in the civil rights practice community described Monday's decision as consequential.

"It's huge," said Arthur Larkin, a civil rights attorney at Hale & Monico LLC and former attorney with the New York City Law Department, to Law360.

Larkin said the decision will likely eliminate a lot of unnecessary litigation over what constitutes a favorable termination, and he praised Justice Kavanaugh's opinion.

"It's clear, simple, easy to understand, easy for the lower courts to apply," he said.

Andrew G. Celli Jr., a founding partner at Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel LLP, a boutique specializing in police misconduct litigation, said in an email to Law360 the ruling represents an "important victory" for people who seek to hold police accountable for being wrongfully charged with a crime.

"Too often, courts dismiss baseless criminal charges for reasons that are either vaguely described or mired in legal terminology; sometimes, they offer no rationale at all. Before today, plaintiffs seeking to pursue claims of malicious prosecution had to litigate the meaning of these 'findings.' No longer," Celli wrote.

He added, "It's rare for this Supreme Court to rule in favor of a civil rights plaintiff in a case against police. This is a victory that matters."

The New York City Law Department declined to comment. The District Attorneys Association of the State of New York did not comment.

Thompson is represented by Amir H. Ali of the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center and Jonathan Y. Ellis of the U.S. Solicitor General's Office.

The NYPD officers are represented by Assistant Corporation Counsel John David Moore of the Law Department of the City of New York.

The case is Thompson v. Clark, case number 20-659, in the U.S. Supreme Court.

--Editing by Andrew Cohen.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the first name of an attorney. The error has been corrected.

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