Access to Justice

Thompson v. Clark

In Thompson v. Clark, the Supreme Court considered whether people may sue a police officer for instigating baseless criminal charges against them once those charges are dropped—or whether, instead, victims may sue only if the charges are dismissed in a manner that somehow demonstrates their innocence.

Case Summary

Police officers showed up at Larry Thompson’s home one night and demanded entry as his family was preparing for bed. When Thompson insisted that the officers needed a warrant, they barged inside and forcibly arrested him. An officer falsely claimed that Thompson had violently resisted arrest, leading Thompson to be jailed and charged with two crimes. The state soon dropped those charges.

Alleging that he was detained without probable cause as a result of these baseless charges, in violation of the Fourth Amendment, Thompson filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a statute that authorizes damages actions against state and local officials for constitutional violations. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that Thompson could not bring this claim. Under that Circuit’s precedent, this type of Section 1983 suit is permitted only if the prior prosecution ends in a way that somehow demonstrates the innocence of the accused person. In Thompson’s case, because the state simply dropped the charges, there was no affirmative indication of his innocence and he therefore could not sue over the violation of his constitutional rights. The Supreme Court agreed to review this decision, and CAC filed an amicus brief in support of Thompson.

As our brief explained, the Second Circuit developed its “innocence” rule by wrongly conflating Fourth Amendment claims like Thompson’s with the common law tort of malicious prosecution. Like other courts that have adopted the same rule, the Second Circuit requires plaintiffs to show more than what Section 1983 requires, that is, a violation of their constitutional rights. Instead, these plaintiffs must also satisfy every requirement of a common law malicious prosecution claim, including showing “favorable termination” of the prior criminal proceedings. And the Circuit has narrowly construed “favorable termination” as limited to a jury acquittal or other resolution that indicates the victim’s innocence—a type of resolution that almost never occurs.

Our brief further explained why there is no basis for this approach, which grafts the requirements of a malicious prosecution claim on top of those required by a Fourth Amendment claim. This approach leaves victims of constitutional violations without relief merely because those violations do not also happen to qualify as a common law tort. But Section 1983 is not a mechanism for adjudicating common law torts; it exists to safeguard the unique rights guaranteed by the federal Constitution. Therefore, as the Supreme Court has recognized, rules borrowed from the common law may be applied to Section 1983 claims only when they advance the statute’s purpose and are compatible with the constitutional right at stake.

Under those standards, requiring plaintiffs like Thompson to point to “indications of innocence” in the way their prosecutions ended is indefensible. Fourth Amendment claims focus on the lawfulness of an officer’s actions at the time they were taken, based on the information then known. Regardless of whether a prosecution is later brought, or how it ends, the person accused has a right for there to have been a constitutionally valid basis for their initial detention. And as long as the prosecution ended without a conviction or guilty plea, there is no possibility of conflicting results between the civil and criminal cases. The “innocence” rule also gives prosecutors the power to insulate constitutional violations from accountability, simply by dropping unfounded charges before they go to trial. Finally, this harsh rule is not even supported by the common law from which it is purportedly drawn. Because this rule has no basis and makes relief all but impossible for many victims of constitutional violations, our brief urged the Supreme Court to reject it.

In April 2022, the Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision, ruled in favor of Thompson. The Court held that to demonstrate the favorable termination of a criminal prosecution, plaintiffs like Thompson need only show that their prosecutions ended without a conviction—there is no additional need to show “indications of innocence.” The decision allows police officers to be held accountable under the Fourth Amendment for false accusations that cause a person to be seized without justification. Importantly, the Court emphasized that it uses common law analogies to construe Section 1983 only “so long as doing so is consistent with the values and purposes of the constitutional right at issue.”

Case Timeline

  • June 11, 2021

    CAC files amicus curiae brief

    Sup. Ct. Amicus. Br.
  • October 12, 2021

    The Supreme Court hears oral argument

  • April 4, 2022

    The Supreme Court issues its decision

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