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Supreme Court Broadens Reach of Malicious Prosecution Actions

A Brooklyn man who tried to sue police for malicious prosecution under a federal civil rights law won his case in the Supreme Court, the New York Times reports. The question was whether Larry Thompson's case, in which police dropped a charge against him before going to trial, met the threshold for bringing a malicious prosecution case under the federal law known as Section 1983. This statute allows citizens to sue government actors for violations of their constitutional rights, but previous precedent held that in order for a 1983 case based on malicious prosecution to go forward the criminal case against the plaintiff needed to end "in a manner that affirmatively indicate[d] [their] innocence.” In Thompson's case, no "affirmative indication" of innocence was produced, but only because the case was so weak that it was dropped before it ever went to trial. Thompson's case stemmed from an accusation by his mentally ill sister-in-law that he had abused his newborn baby. It turned out that the baby merely had diaper rash, but officers responded to his home and demanded to be let in. Because they did not have a warrant, Thompson refused to let the officers in. However, the officers entered over Thompson's objections and tackled him to the ground. Thompson was arrested and was charged by police with resisting arrest during a two day jail stay. Later, prosecutors dropped the charges.

Writing for the majority, Justice Brett Kavanaugh said, “Requiring the plaintiff to show that his prosecution ended with an affirmative indication of innocence would paradoxically foreclose” a Section 1983 claim “when the government’s case was weaker and dismissed without explanation before trial, but allow a claim when the government’s evidence was substantial enough to proceed to trial.” Five Justices agreed with Kavanaugh, ruling that a Section 1983 claim may be brought in cases where the state has dropped charges against a citizen. However, there are other hurdles for plaintiffs seeking to bring claims against the police, including qualified immunity, which requires plaintiffs to show that the police officers they sue violated a constitutional right that has been "clearly established" in a previous court ruling. Kavanaugh was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, and the liberal bloc in his majority opinion.

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