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SCOTUS Decision Impacts “Malicious Prosecution” Lawsuits

Supreme Court

On Monday, April 4, 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) issued an opinion in Thompson v. Clark, protecting rights of former criminal defendants to bring civil lawsuits against government officials who violated their Fourth Amendment rights during a prior criminal proceeding(s), in fact, engaged in “malicious prosecution.”

The 6-3 opinion, authored by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, interpreted who, exactly, meets the requirement necessary to have legal standing to sue for malicious prosecution under 42 U.S.C. §1983 (“§1983 “). The precise issue in this case centered on the definition of “favorable termination” because to sue government officials for malicious prosecution, a prospective litigant must first demonstrate that the government’s earlier prosecution was terminated in favor of the criminal defendant.

In writing for the majority, Justice Kavanaugh fashioned the ruling in this case to state, “[t]o demonstrate a favorable termination of a criminal prosecution for purposes of the Fourth Amendment claim under §1983 for malicious prosecution, a plaintiff need not show that the criminal prosecution ended with some affirmative indication of innocence. A plaintiff need only show that his prosecution ended without a conviction.”

42 U.S.C. §1983 is a significant mechanism for holding government officials accountable for actions against citizens, insomuch as the statute affords former criminal defendants an avenue to redress constitutional violations, key among them – Fourth Amendment violations, committed by law enforcement officers who initiate and carry out criminal proceedings for improper and illegitimate purposes. Often malicious prosecution of a target is closely tied to abuse of power and a need to cover up unlawful conduct by government officials.

This case made its way to the SCOTUS essentially because Mr. Thompson was never actually acquitted or deemed innocent of any charge arising out of his arrest, but rather the prosecution was voluntarily dismissed or dropped by the government. Under these circumstances, the question presented to the court was whether Mr. Thompson should be permitted to file suit for malicious prosecution; in other words what does “favorable termination” mean in the context of a criminal matter which does not terminate in either a conviction or an acquittal?

In practical terms, this decision was a victory for Mr. Thompson. This case is also a victory for all those who agree government accountability contravenes government corruption and safeguards our individual rights of liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

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