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Supreme Court makes it easier to sue police over wrongful arrests

The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. (Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg)

The Supreme Court on Monday made it a little easier for those who contend they were wrongly arrested and charged to pursue malicious prosecution suits against police.

The court, on a 6-to-3 vote, said the plaintiff does not need an acquittal or some statement of innocence from a judge or prosecutor to pursue a Fourth Amendment lawsuit under civil rights laws. The amendment protects against unlawful seizures.

“A plaintiff need only show that his prosecution ended without a conviction,” Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh wrote for the majority. That is only one of the hurdles a plaintiff must clear, though, and Kavanaugh characterized the ruling as a narrow one.

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Still, dissenters on the court said the decision “has no basis in the Constitution and is almost certain to lead to confusion.”

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for himself and Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch, compared Kavanaugh’s rule for the majority to the mythical chimera, described in “The Iliad” as “all lion in front, all snake behind, all goat between.”

“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.”

The case comes from New York, where Larry Thompson was accused of abusing his newborn by the sister of his fiancee, now wife. Kavanaugh wrote that the sister-in-law “apparently suffered from a mental illness” and called 911. Emergency medical technicians and police came to investigate, and Thompson said they could not enter the apartment without a warrant.

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But they did, and after a scuffle, took the baby and arrested Thompson. An examination of the baby showed diaper rash, with no signs of abuse. But police charged Thompson with obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest. He spent two days in jail.

Just before trial, a prosecutor dropped charges against Thompson without explanation.

Thompson sued the officials. But a federal district judge and a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit said the suit could not go forward. Under circuit precedent, “Thompson had to show that his criminal prosecution ended not merely without a conviction, but also with some affirmative indication of his innocence,” Kavanaugh wrote.

Other lower courts have ruled the other way, leading to the Supreme Court’s decision to take the case.

The review split the Supreme Court’s conservatives, with Kavanaugh, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Amy Coney Barrett joining liberal Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

“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,” Kavanaugh wrote. “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.”

Thompson had been supported by civil rights organizations and the officers by prosecutors, who worried about lowering the bar for such lawsuits.

But Kavanaugh said there were other protections, and the decision does not even mean Thompson should prevail.

“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,” he wrote.

The case is Thompson v. Clark.