Explainer: The Supreme Court's Decision in Thompson v Clark

Explainer: The Supreme Court’s Decision in Thompson v Clark

Earlier today, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision in a case called Thompson v Clark that impacts criminal justice reform. Specifically, it impacts your ability to hold government officials accountable if they enter your home and arrest you without search or arrest warrants. So, if police violate your rights, understanding the Thompson v Clark decision could prove very important.

What happened in Thompson v Clark?

In Jan. 2014, Larry Thompson and his fiancée (now his wife) and their newborn baby lived in an apartment in Brooklyn, New York. Thompson’s sister-in-law, who suffered from a mental illness, lived with Thompson’s family too. At some point, the sister-in-law called 911 and (falsely) accused Thompson of sexually abusing the newborn baby. EMTs, and eventually the police, responded to the call.

When the police arrived, Thompson refused to allow them into the family’s home without a warrant. In retaliation for his lawful refusal, police wrongfully arrested him and entered the home anyway — even though they didn’t have permission or a warrant. Then, they charged Thompson with obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest. Unsurprisingly, those charges were ultimately dropped.

After the charges were dropped, Thompson filed a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging several constitutional violations, including what the Supreme Court called “a Fourth Amendment claim for malicious prosecution.” A U.S. District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit dismissed his lawsuit. But, in its decision today, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed those decisions.

Image courtesy of Harland Quarrington via Wikimedia Commons.

What did the Supreme Court decide in Thompson v Clark?

To prevail on his Fourth Amendment claim for malicious prosecution, the Supreme Court said, a plaintiff must prove three things:

  • that the underlying prosecution was instituted without probable cause,
  • that the motive in starting the prosecution was malicious (i.e., other than bring a defendant to justice) and
  • finally, that the prosecution “terminated in the acquittal or discharge of the accused.”

The Supreme Court’s decision focused on the third requirement, which the Court described as required “a favorable termination of the underlying criminal prosecution….”

The question before the Supreme Court was simple: Did the underlying prosecution end with a “favorable termination” for Thompson? The problem in Thompson’s case was that this was a simple question with a complicated answer. When the prosecution moved to dismiss the charges against Thompson and the court granted that motion, no one explained why.

So, without an explanation, was the dismissal still a “favorable termination” for Thompson? For him, the answer is probably yes. After all, the court dismissed the charges. But, for courts across the country, the issue has been a toss-up. Is that dismissal without explanation enough? Or does the law require something more clear like an acquittal or a statement of innocence?

For the Supreme Court, a dismissal — with or without an explanation — was enough. “In sum, we hold that a Fourth Amendment claim under § 1983 for malicious prosecution does not require the plaintiff to show that the criminal prosecution ended with some affirmative indication of innocence,” the Supreme Court said. “A plaintiff need only show that the criminal prosecution ended without a conviction.”

Image courtesy of Jackie Hope via Unsplash.

The Takeaway:

Before the Supreme Court’s decision in Thompson v Clark, it wasn’t clear whether you could bring a Fourth Amendment claim for malicious prosecution if a court dismissed the charges against you without explanation. Now, the answer is clear: “A plaintiff need only show that the criminal prosecution ended without a conviction.” For those who want to hold government actors who commit misconduct more accountable, the Supreme Court’s decision in Thompson v Clark is a good one.

While you’re here, take time to read about other Supreme Court’s decisions in our Explainer series, including Ramirez v Collier and Wooden v United States.

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