Apr 4, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Supreme Court makes it easier to sue police over wrongful arrests

Photo of the Supreme Court building's top triangular facade
The U.S. Supreme Court building. Photo: Alex Wong via Getty Images

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that former criminal defendants who sue law enforcement for a wrongful arrest don't need to prove that they were innocent of the offenses they were charged with, only that their underlying cases ended without a conviction.

Why it matters: The 6-3 decision is a "major win for plaintiffs in police accountability cases," Law360 notes. It will make it easier to pursue lawsuits under the Fourth Amendment, which protects people from unreasonable seizures.

Details: The Supreme Court sided with Larry Thompson, a Navy veteran who sued the New York Police Department for violating his civil rights.

  • The sister of Thompson's now-wife "apparently suffered from a mental illness" and called 911 accusing him of abusing their newborn, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in the majority opinion.
  • When police arrived, Thompson refused to let them enter without a warrant. He scuffled with the officers before they arrested him and took the baby. Medical examiners later found no signs of abuse on the baby.
  • Thompson was nevertheless charged with obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest, and spent two days in jail. The charges were dismissed before trial without explanation.

Monday's decision strikes down an earlier ruling by the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which said Thompson could not sue the officers without proving his innocence.

What they're saying: "The question of whether a criminal defendant was wrongly charged does not logically depend on whether the prosecutor or court explained why the prosecution was dismissed," Kavanaugh wrote.

  • "And the individual’s ability to seek redress for a wrongful prosecution cannot reasonably turn on the fortuity of whether the prosecutor or court happened to explain why the charges were dismissed."

The other side: Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch disagreed. The court's ruling "has no basis in the Constitution and is almost certain to lead to confusion," Alito wrote in the dissenting opinion.

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