Justices Wary Of Strict Limit On Malicious Prosecution Cases

By Cara Salvatore | April 15, 2024, 10:32 PM EDT ·

Several U.S. Supreme Court justices appeared open Monday to the idea that a charge made without probable cause can be grounds for a malicious prosecution civil suit even if another charge with valid probable cause accompanied it, but without a clear consensus on a precise boundary.

The justices heard argument over the malicious-prosecution case of Jascha Chiaverini, an Ohio jeweler charged with felony money laundering in 2016 after police in the city of Napoleon, Ohio, allegedly lied about his behavior.

Chiaverini sued Napoleon and police officers under Section 1983, saying his Fourth Amendment right against seizure of his person was violated because there was no probable cause for the money laundering charge. One of the gateway elements necessary to bring a Fourth Amendment Section 1983 malicious prosecution claim is the absence of probable cause.

The Sixth Circuit affirmed dismissal, pointing to the probable cause that did exist for a retaining-stolen-property misdemeanor and a licensing misdemeanor, and saying "any crime" charged concomitantly with valid probable cause is covered. Chiaverini's criminal charges were all dismissed when prosecutors declined to bring them to a grand jury.

Chiaverini's lawyer, Easha Anand of the Stanford Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, asked the court Monday to craft a narrow ruling and simply "define the precise contours of the seizure requirement" as being "charge specific," meaning any charge without probable cause supports eligibility for a malicious prosecution claim. The court should ignore for now other legal questions brought up by Chiaverini's claim that he was held in jail for four days without justification — a can of worms unnecessary to open in this case, Anand said, citing the 2022 Supreme Court decision Thompson v. Clark .

"You could just continue to reiterate the Thompson language," Anand told Justice Amy Coney Barrett. "We don't think this court should use this case to go further and say that there cannot be a malicious prosecution claim predicated on, for instance, the Unreasonable Search Clause or the Warrant Clause. We ... don't think that this is the case that tees that up."

Vivek Suri of the U.S. Solicitor General's Office, arguing for the government, generally agreed that the court should rule in the "crime-specific" camp but asked the court to make the bar slightly higher for Chiaverini's type of claim.

"The plaintiff bears the burden of proving that the baseless charge caused an unreasonable seizure. That's an important step to take, because if there's no unreasonable seizure, there's no violation of the Fourth Amendment," Suri said. "But it's also not a significant step to take, because you'd just be reaffirming what you've already said in Thompson."

Justice Samuel Alito pressed Suri on whether that approach would be practical. "I don't know how a plaintiff would prove the charge for which there was no probable cause was the one that resulted in the decision to arrest," he said.

Justice Neil Gorsuch said the matter was murky for him as well; he understands malicious prosecution claims as being about "protecting the judicial process" in common law, but said such claims felt like they could be a more natural fit with the 14th Amendment.

The case started in November 2016, when Chiaverini paid a visitor to his diamond and gold shop $45 for a ring and an earring. Chiaverini received a call later that day from a couple looking for similar jewelry that had been stolen. Police filed a report and then later came back to retrieve the property after giving Chiaverini conflicting advice about whether to hold the property. Chiaverini asked them to wait for his lawyer to arrive, but the police left and then altered their report to cast suspicion on Chiaverini.

The city of Napoleon, represented by Megan Wold of Cooper & Kirk PLLC, argued that the "any-crime" rule supposedly articulated by the Sixth Circuit is a misread.

"Under this any-crime straw man rule, it would mean that the presence of one charge supported by probable cause automatically justifies any detention. I don't think that's what the Sixth Circuit thought," Wold said. The circuit articulated that "the success of the malicious prosecution claim depends on whether probable cause supported his detention," Wold said. Therefore, it's necessary to look at Chiaverini's detention to see if anything undue happened. And doing that, his detention of just "a few days" means there was no issue with what came before it, she said.

The court, she said, should adopt a new procedure involving first bracketing out everything in the warrant alleged to be false, and then, based on what remains, asking whether there is probable cause supporting arrest. If there is, then Chiaverini has no claim.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said this was inching towards the standards for false-arrest claims, and that the distinction between such claims and malicious prosecution must be maintained.

"In the world of malicious prosecution, the thing that we care about is the intent and the maliciousness and what the process is doing to you for baseless reasons. So once we're starting there, it seems to me you can't really judge the causation by those other standards, by standards that say, 'Well, we don't really care what the officer was thinking,'" Justice Jackson said.

Anand said in her short rebuttal that "This court can do a lot of good by just saying that that rule is incorrect, that a plaintiff can make out a malicious prosecution claim even if some charges are supported by probable cause, and we'll fight about all the complexities that Your Honors heard about on remand."

Chiaverini is represented by Easha Anand of Stanford Law School's Supreme Court Litigation Clinic.

The city of Napoleon is represented by Megan Wold of Cooper & Kirk PLLC.

The U.S. Solicitor General's Office is represented by Vivek Suri.

The case is Chiaverini et al. v. City of Napoleon, Ohio et al., case number 23-50, in the Supreme Court of the United States.

--Editing by Peter Rozovsky.

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