Civil and Human Rights

Chiaverini v. City of Napoleon, Ohio

In Chiaverini v. City of Napoleon, the Supreme Court is considering whether police officers who file baseless criminal charges against a person are exempt from liability simply because the officers also filed other charges against that person that were supported by probable cause.

Case Summary

When police officers file groundless charges against a person who is then arrested or detained, federal law makes the officers liable for violating the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits seizures without probable cause. The question in this case is whether officers are exempt from liability for the harms caused by their fabricated charges if they also brought at least one legitimate charge against the same person.

Police officers charged Jascha Chiaverini with two misdemeanors and a felony count of money laundering. He maintains that the felony charge was based entirely on lies about what he said to the officers. As a result of the charges, Chiaverini was arrested and detained, and a wide range of property and records were seized from his business. After the charges against him were dismissed, he challenged the officers’ actions under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which imposes liability on state and local officials who cause people to be deprived of their constitutional rights. Chiaverini’s claim is that he was unreasonably seized pursuant to legal process—sometimes referred to as a “malicious prosecution” claim.

However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit rejected Chiaverini’s claim, letting the officers off the hook for the felony charge solely because there was probable cause for the two misdemeanors. Even though the felony charge was the reason Chiaverini was arrested, the court held that malicious prosecution claims like his are defeated by the inclusion of even a single legitimate charge alongside fabricated ones, no matter what effect the fabricated charges had on the events that followed.

CAC filed an amicus brief explaining why Section 1983, together with the Fourth Amendment rights that it enforces, requires that Chiaverini be allowed to pursue his malicious prosecution claim.

As we demonstrate, the text of Section 1983 requires a “charge-specific” approach to Fourth Amendment claims like this one. When individuals are seized without probable cause, they are deprived of their Fourth Amendment rights. And under Section 1983, an officer who “causes” a person to be deprived of their constitutional rights “shall be liable to the party injured.” Therefore, when an officer’s baseless charges cause a search or seizure that legitimate charges alone would not have justified, the officer has caused a deprivation of the victim’s constitutional rights. But the Sixth Circuit’s blanket rule prevents any inquiry into the effects of an officer’s false accusations and whether they led to a search or seizure that valid charges would not have produced.  Because that categorical rule exempts officers from liability when they cause the deprivation of a person’s constitutional rights, it is at odds with the text of Section 1983.

Our brief also shows why the Sixth Circuit’s justification for its rule is unpersuasive. To explain its rule, the court invoked the standards that are used to judge warrantless arrests (seizures without legal process). Generally, police officers may arrest people without a warrant if there is probable cause to believe they committed a single crime, regardless of whether that crime is actually the one the officer cited at the time or was thinking about. The court reasoned that a similar rule should apply when officers have probable cause to file one criminal charge but they also add other, meritless charges. But the comparison does not hold up: none of the rationales for this lenient rule applies when police officers make false accusations to initiate legal process.

Among other things, the rule for warrantless arrests is meant to prevent courts from evaluating a police officer’s subjective intent. But holding officers accountable for the results of their groundless accusations does not require probing their subjective intent. In addition, officers who arrest without a warrant can hold the arrestee for only a limited period of time before they must initiate legal process and obtain a judge’s approval. Officers should not be allowed to undermine that safeguard with false accusations simply because they had broad authority to make the initial arrest. Moreover, the generous rules for warrantless arrests reflect a common law heritage that has long given officers wide leeway to keep the peace and prevent violence by immediately taking offenders into custody. There is no similar tradition of allowing police officers to pervert the integrity of legal process by lying to judicial officers or otherwise advancing groundless accusations. Finally, the forgiving standards for warrantless arrests reflects the fact that officers in the field must make arrest decisions in the heat of the moment, sometimes in dangerous situations. The same imperative does not arise when officers make baseless claims in the course of filing charges, submitting warrant affidavits, or testifying before a judge. For these reasons, and others, officers should not be exempt from liability when they harm people by filings unfounded charges against them.

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