ARLINGTON, Va.—In a 6–3 decision authored by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement officers cannot shield themselves from liability for constitutional violations by charging their victims with crimes. Until the Court’s ruling today in Thompson v. Clark, many lower courts required victims of constitutional abuse to prove their innocence of charged crimes before proceeding with constitutional claims. The Institute for Justice (IJ) submitted an amicus brief in the case, urging the Court to rule as it ultimately did.
“The Court today rejected a senseless rule that flips the principle of innocent-until-proven guilty on its head,” said IJ Attorney Marie Miller, author of IJ’s brief in the case. “In doing so, it knocked down one of many barriers to holding government officials accountable when they violate individual constitutional rights. Unfortunately, the Court acknowledged that qualified immunity still protects government officials like those in Thompson’s case, and Thompson will still have to overcome that hurdle in the case.”
The case involved a Navy veteran, Larry Thompson, who was at home with his fiancée and infant daughter when four New York Police Department officers knocked on the door and demanded entry into the home to examine the baby. They were responding to a call from Thompson’s sister-in-law, who has cognitive delays and had—unbeknownst to the couple—called 911 because she saw a diaper rash and heard cries, which she mistook as signs of abuse.
Thompson told the officers they needed a warrant to come into his home. Instead of obtaining one, they allegedly tackled Thompson to the ground, handcuffed him, put him in jail for two days and made false statements about what happened. A prosecutor charged Thompson with resisting arrest and obstructing governmental administration. The charges were soon dismissed.
Thompson sued the officers under the federal civil-rights statute for violating his constitutional rights in precipitating the prosecution. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, however, followed its rule that a litigant like Thompson cannot sue the officers unless he can prove that the charges were dismissed because he was innocent—an impossible task because judges and prosecutors are not required to assess guilt or innocence when dismissing charges.
In today’s decision, the Court explained that to proceed with his lawsuit Thompson only needed to show that his prosecution “ended without a conviction,” not that he was actually innocent. Thompson satisfied that requirement in this case. The Court cited American legal history, which almost uniformly rejected similar requirements under common law. The Court further stated that “requiring the plaintiff to show that his prosecution ended with an affirmative indication of innocence would paradoxically foreclose a [constitutional] claim when the government’s case was weaker and dismissed without explanation before trial, but allow a claim when the government’s evidence was substantial enough to proceed to trial. That would make little sense.”
IJ’s support for Thompson in this case is part of its Project on Immunity and Accountability, which is devoted to the simple idea that government officials are not above the law; if citizens must follow the law, then the government must follow the Constitution. Also as part of this Project, IJ has asked the Supreme Court to review decisions preventing Hamdi Mohamud and Kevin Byrd from suing officials who violated their Fourth Amendment rights, because those officers are federal employees. Those cases remain pending before the High Court.