Legal Update: Supreme Court Shakes Up 42 USC §1983

by Amily Imbrogno

The Supreme Court shook up Section 1983 jurisprudence in its recent opinion in Thompson v. Clark, 596 US ____ (2022).  In Thompson, the petitioner had been arrested and charged with obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest after police entered his Brooklyn apartment without first obtaining a warrant.  Before trial, the prosecutor moved to dismiss the charges and the trial judge dismissed the case, both without explanation.  

                The petitioner sued for damages against the police officers who had arrested and charged him.  He alleged several claims for violations of his constitutional rights under 42 USC § 1983, including one for “malicious prosecution,” purportedly under the Fourth Amendment. The trial court entered judgment for the defendants, because under Second Circuit precedent the petitioner was required to present evidence that the prosecution ended with some affirmative indication of innocence, of which the petitioner provided no evidence. The Circuit Court affirmed.

The Supreme Court reversed. Congress enacted 42 USC § 1983 in 1871, which created a private right of action against individuals and entities who, under color of law, violate a plaintiff’s federal constitutional rights. The majority found that, in determining the elements of claims brought under § 1983, the Court’s practice is to compare the elements of the most analogous tort as of 1871 to the § 1983 claim at bar, so long as doing so is consistent with the values and purposes of the constitutional right at issue.  As a result, it compared the petitioner’s Fourth Amendment claim to the elements of the common law tort of malicious prosecution as it existed in 1871.

After examining history, the majority issued a simple holding: “to demonstrate a favorable termination of a criminal prosecution for purposes of the Fourth Amendment clam 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.” (Emphasis added).

The Sixth Circuit, which has jurisdiction over § 1983 claims brought in federal courts located in Ohio, has long held that a claim for “malicious prosecution” exists pursuant to the Fourth Amendment under §1983, and has not required that a plaintiff prove that the prosecution ended with some affirmative indication of innocence. However, the Court’s statement that “a plaintiff need only show that the criminal prosecution ended without a conviction” does answer some of the questions that continue to underlie the contours of malicious prosecution claims. While this holding appears negative to governmental entities, portions of the opinion could be helpful to them in the future. 

The majority stated several times that historically, when examining common law malicious prosecution claims, courts routinely examined whether the prosecution was at an end, or disposed of in a manner that “cannot be revived,” or “if there is a final end of the prosecution.” This language, though dicta, may be used by government entities to argue that a plaintiff may only succeed if he or she proves that a charge was dismissed with prejudice, or that the statute of limitations has expired on the charge if it has been dismissed without prejudice. Moreover, the majority also noted that law enforcement will still be protected by the defense of qualified immunity, which may serve as some endorsement of the defense by the current Court.