Historic U.S. Supreme Court Victory for Civil Rights
The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard its first civil rights case against the NYPD in over 40 years. The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in Thompson v. Clark, et al. to allow a wrongfully arrested Brooklyn man, Larry Thompson, to sue the police department for civil rights violations—specifically, for malicious prosecution.
Facts of the Thompson v. Clark Case
Back in 2014, Thompson tried to invoke his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures when he told police that they could not enter his home without a warrant. Acting in response to a 911 call placed by his sister-in-law, who was apparently suffering from mental illness, the NYPD violated Thompson’s Fourth Amendment rights by forcing their way into his home without a warrant. Thompson was arrested by police officers for resisting their entry into his home. Meanwhile, his one-week-old baby daughter was taken by EMTs to the hospital, where she was examined for signs of abuse, which was alleged in the 911 call.
Medical professionals found no signs of abuse on Thompson’s daughter, who was returned to the family. However, Thompson himself remained in police custody for two days. NYPD officers prepared and filed a criminal complaint against Thompson, charging him with obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest. After two days, the charges against him were dropped without an official reason, and a judge released him.
Challenges in Obtaining Justice for Malicious Prosecution
Thompson took the NYPD to court to prove that he was wrongfully arrested and maliciously prosecuted so that he could then sue them for civil rights violations. However, he was up against restrictive legal precedents set by prior case law in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
Previously, Fourth Amendment claims of malicious prosecution required the plaintiff to show that they had been acquitted by a judge, or that the case had been formally dismissed for insufficient evidence. Thompson’s charges of resisting arrest, however, had never made it that far into the system. Like many others, he had simply been detained and then released.
The barriers in place set by that precedent did not stop his legal team from taking his case all the way to the Supreme Court. The decision in his favor sets a new legal precedent for what is a “favorable termination” of a case and when a Fourth Amendment-backed claim of malicious prosecution can be invoked.
Setting a New Legal Precedent
Prior case law set a standard that made it impossible for Thompson to prove he had been maliciously prosecuted, given that the NYPD did not provide an official reason for eventually dropping his charges. Previously, wrongfully arrested individuals had to prove that their criminal prosecution ended favorably (i.e., with an acquittal or an affirmative statement from a judge proclaiming their innocence) in order to earn the right to sue law enforcement for damages.
Thompson’s case updated the legal precedent for malicious prosecution. In a decision written by Justice Kavanaugh and joined by Justices Roberts, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan, and Barrett, moving forward, “a plaintiff need only show that [their] prosecution ended without a conviction” in order to make a claim of malicious prosecution. Now, wrongfully arrested individuals have fewer barriers before them to satisfy the “favorable outcome” criteria. The legal understanding of malicious prosecution has been broadened to include criminal charges brought without probable cause.
Shulman & Hill’s Civil Rights Partner Cary London, head of Thompson’s legal team, said of the case, “Malicious prosecution is a cause of action that should be recognized nationally (in all districts) but has only been recognized in certain Federal Districts. It was extremely frustrating that there was not a huge body of favorable case law on the issue, and that the districts are split on the issue.”
Past Federal Court Decisions Concerning the NYPD
Federal court decisions have been instrumental in providing a check on the NYPD and reining in some of its more controversial policing strategies in the past. In 2013, a federal judge ruled against the NYPD’s infamous Stop-and-Frisk tactics, claiming them to be unconstitutional on the basis of the Fourth Amendment. Stop-and-Frisk, a tactic that allowed New York City citizens to be detained, interrogated and searched solely on the basis of “reasonable suspicion” by officers, faced vocal opposition from civil rights groups such as the NAACP and the Center for Constitutional Rights. For instance, in the heyday of the policy’s implementation, Black and Latino New Yorkers made up just 50% of the city’s population but were grossly overrepresented in police stops at 84%.
Stop-and-Frisk was not only worryingly racially motivated, but it was also proven to be ineffective. Data from the American Civil Liberties Union showed that nine out of 10 stopped-and-frisked New Yorkers turned out to be innocent.
Despite these concerns, it took the ruling of federal justice Shira A. Scheindlin in Floyd, et al. v. City of New York, et al. to strike down Stop-and-Frisk as a policy. However, even that landmark case did not escalate all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Supreme Court rulings against the NYPD are rare, making this decision in favor of Thompson all the more remarkable.
Implications Moving Forward for the Wrongfully Arrested
These new legal precedents open the door for many individuals who were wrongfully arrested in the past to sue law enforcement departments for malicious prosecution. People who previously did not qualify to sue law enforcement for civil rights violations may now qualify under the new legal precedent set by Thompson v. Clark, et al., making this a historic victory in civil rights law.
Additionally, as an amicus brief filed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. states, “the lower courts’ [previous] restrictive precedent would have a racially discriminatory impact, as Black people are disproportionately subject to unreasonable arrests and detentions.” Lowering the standard for malicious prosecution may therefore incentivize more equitable policing and hold not only the NYPD but other law enforcement organizations to a higher standard when it comes to accusing someone of resisting arrest.