Access to Justice

Thompson v. Clark

In Thompson v. Clark, the Supreme Court is considering 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 explains, 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 explains 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 urges the Supreme Court to reject it.

Case Timeline

  • June 11, 2021

    CAC files amicus curiae brief

    Sup. Ct. Amicus. Br.
  • November 1, 2021

    The Supreme Court will hear oral argument

More from Access to Justice

Access to Justice
U.S. Supreme Court

Reed v. Goertz

In Reed v. Goertz, the Supreme Court is being asked to consider when the statute of limitations for a Section 1983 claim challenging the adequacy of state procedures for seeking DNA testing of crime-scene evidence...
Access to Justice
U.S. Supreme Court

Federal Bureau of Investigation v. Fazaga

In FBI v. Fazaga, the Supreme Court is considering whether allegations of unlawful government surveillance may be adjudicated using procedures in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act instead of being dismissed as a result of the...
Access to Justice
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

Roe v. United States

In Roe v. United States, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit is considering whether an employee of the federal judiciary can sue under the Fifth Amendment for sex discrimination experienced in the...
Access to Justice
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

J.W. v. Paley

In J.W. v. Paley, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is considering whether public school officials who use excessive physical force against students may be held accountable for violating the Fourth Amendment.
Access to Justice
U.S. Supreme Court

Frasier v. Evans

In Frasier v. Evans, the Supreme Court is being asked to consider whether police officers who knowingly violated a person’s First Amendment right to film them making an arrest are entitled to qualified immunity.
Access to Justice
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

Gonzalez v. Trevino

In Gonzalez v. Trevino, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is considering what threshold requirements individuals must satisfy to bring First Amendment claims against a state or local official for arresting them...