Criminal proceedings reach “favorable termination” when they end without conviction

Irina Baranova
OPINION ANALYSIS

A plaintiff bringing a damages claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for constitutional violations arising in the criminal-justice process “need only show that his prosecution ended without a conviction” and not “with some affirmative indication of innocence,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote for a six-justice majority in Thompson v. Clark. Justice Samuel Alito dissented, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch.

Background

Larry Thompson was charged with resisting arrest and obstructing a government investigation when he attempted to stop police from entering his apartment in response to a false call about child abuse. The prosecution moved to dismiss “in the interest of justice” and a New York trial court dismissed the matter. Thompson sued for damages under Section 1983, which allows individuals to sue state actors for violating their constitutional rights. He alleged a variety of Fourth Amendment violations. The claim before the Supreme Court alleged malicious prosecution (also described as unreasonable seizure pursuant to legal process) against one responding officer, Pagiel Clark, who signed a criminal complaint during Thompson’s initial post-arrest detention.

Kavanaugh’s opinion for the court

Kavanaugh began by affirming that precedent from the court and lower courts recognized claims for unreasonable seizure pursuant to legal process under the Fourth Amendment. This constitutional claim is analogous to the tort of malicious prosecution, as the gravamen of both is initiation of criminal charges without probable cause. The elements of the constitutional claim match those of the tort. A Fourth Amendment plaintiff must show the criminal proceeding was initiated without probable cause, initiated for a purpose other than bringing the defendant to justice, and terminated in favor of the defendant. The final element serves multiple purposes. It avoids parallel civil and criminal proceedings, precludes inconsistent civil and criminal judgments, and prevents criminal defendants from using civil litigation as collateral attacks on criminal proceedings.

The parties disputed what favorable termination means — whether the plaintiff must show an affirmative indication of innocence (such as acquittal or dismissal of charges with an express judicial finding of insufficient evidence) or whether she must show that the proceedings did not produce a conviction. Looking at American tort law as of 1871 (when Congress enacted the Ku Klux Klan Act, of which Section 1983 was a part), the court found that American courts and treatises were largely in agreement: A malicious-prosecution claim was available when criminal proceedings ended and could not be revived, such as where the prosecutor abandoned the case or the trial court dismissed without explanation. Kavanaugh rejected contrary authority on malicious prosecution, including an outlier decision from the Rhode Island Supreme Court, modern understandings of malicious prosecution, and authorities defining when cases have or have not terminated. None alters the basic principle that if a proceeding has terminated (however terminated is defined), the termination is favorable when there is no conviction.

Because the 1871 tort-law consensus did not require affirmative indications of innocence, the court construed the Section 1983 Fourth Amendment claim in the same manner. This approach furthers Fourth Amendment purposes and values. Whether a defendant was unlawfully seized should not depend on the “fortuity” of whether the court or prosecutor explained why charges were dismissed. And the alternative approach would create a paradox — it would foreclose a Section 1983 claim when a weak prosecution was dismissed before trial while allowing a claim where the evidence warranted a trial that resulted in acquittal.

The court identified open issues to be resolved on remand, including whether Thompson was seized for Fourth Amendment purposes, whether Clark had probable clause, and whether Clark is entitled to qualified immunity.

Alito’s dissent

Alito rejected the “chimera of a constitutional tort” that combined the “very different” claims of Fourth Amendment unreasonable seizure and common-law malicious prosecution. (He cited Homer’s description of the chimera as a “grim monster” of “all lion in front, all snake behind, all goat between,” recalling his invocation of the centaur during argument). Alito criticized the majority’s reliance on lower-court cases and lack of independent analysis, insisting that the Fourth Amendment and malicious prosecution have almost nothing in common and that the court’s precedents do not support such a claim. He feared the decision will sow more confusion, as lower courts try to make sense of the precise elements and the disconnect between the tort and the Fourth Amendment.

Rather than a new hybrid claim, Alito argued the court should have held that a malicious-prosecution claim cannot be brought under the Fourth Amendment. Thompson could pursue available constitutional claims for false arrest, excessive force, and unlawful entry — as he did in losing on those claims at trial.

Criminal proceedings reach “favorable termination” when they end without conviction

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