On The Front Lines
U.S. Supreme Court Affirms Fourth Amendment Right to Hold Police Accountable for Malicious Prosecutions, Arrests Without Probable Cause
WASHINGTON, D.C. — In a 6-3 ruling in Thompson v. Clark, the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed that individuals have a Fourth Amendment right to hold police accountable for maliciously instituting charges and arrests without probable cause. The court’s ruling allows a lawsuit to proceed against police officers who, after arriving at Larry Thompson’s home late one night and being refused entry without a warrant, forced their way into the home and claimed that Thompson had resisted arrest, leading Thompson to be jailed and charged with two crimes. Although the charges were later dropped, Thompson’s attempts to challenge the officers’ malicious actions were stymied by a so-called “innocence” rule that gives prosecutors the power to insulate police from accountability for constitutional violations simply by dropping unfounded charges before they go to trial. The Rutherford Institute joined with the ACLU, NYCLU, and Cato Institute in an amicus brief challenging the “innocence” rule loophole that serves to shield police from being held liable for misconduct.
“At a time when the courts routinely shield police from accountability for misconduct, this ruling is at least an encouraging glimmer in the gloom,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “For too long, Americans have been treated as if they have no rights at all when it comes to encounters with police. This is an overdue reminder that freedom is not secondary to security, and the rights of the citizenry are no less important than the authority of the government.”
In January 2014, four police officers and two EMTs arrived at Larry Thompson’s home in Brooklyn, New York, and demanded entry, allegedly in response to a 911 call accusing Thompson of abusing his one-week-old daughter. When Thompson refused to allow the police to enter his home without a warrant, police forced their way into the home, handcuffed Thompson, and charged him with obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest. The EMTs took the newborn child to the hospital for an examination where medical professionals found no signs of abuse. Thompson remained in custody for two days. Prior to trial, the prosecutor moved to dismiss the charges without any explanation, and the case against Thompson was dismissed. Thompson, in turn, sued the police for malicious prosecution pursuant to Title 42, Section 1983 of the United States Code, which allows a person to seek redress when the government deprives him of his constitutional rights. Thompson claimed that the police officers subjected him to unlawful detention without probable cause in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. However, because the prosecutor had dismissed the charges without explanation, both the trial court and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Thompson’s criminal case did not affirmatively indicate his innocence, therefore his malicious prosecution claim against the police officers could not proceed. On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the lower court in a 6-3 ruling, finding that Thompson only needed to show that the criminal charges ended without a conviction, thus allowing his claim against the police officers for malicious prosecution to proceed. The Court stated that an “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.”
Marisa C. Maleck, Joshua N. Mitchell, and Edward A. Benoit of King & Spaulding LLP helped to advance the arguments in Thompson v. Clark.
The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated, and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.