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Dad arrested over bad case of diaper rash prevails at high court

The divided justices said there is no need, when pursuing a Fourth Amendment claim, to show that one has been judged innocent.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 Monday in favor of a Brooklyn man whom police tackled and handcuffed after a relative mistook his infant daughter’s diaper rash for sexual abuse.

“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,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote for the majority. “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.”

Larry and Talleta Thompson’s baby Nala was only 1 week old in January 2014 when EMTs arrived at their apartment one night, responding to a call from Talleta's sister. As Thompson's lawyers noted in their petition to the court, the sister has “cognitive delays" and was in the Thompsons' care.

Thompson told the EMTs to leave and was similarly unwelcoming of the police officers who arrived next, asking to see a warrant and to speak with their sergeant. It is disputed whether Thompson shoved the officers when they tried to come in. They took him into custody, while Nala went to the hospital where she was diagnosed with diaper rash.

The EMTs later confirmed as well there were no signs of child sexual abuse. Thompson meanwhile spent two days in jail. Unwilling to take a plea deal, he waited another three months for the city to dismissed the charges against him. In a subsequent lawsuit under the Fourth Amendment, Thompson sought damages from the officers on the grounds that they had maliciously prosecuted him without probable cause.

Amir Ali of the MacArthur Justice Center argued for Thompson before the high court in October. On Monday, the attorney praised the high court for what he called a “much needed step toward greater accountability when officers engage in misconduct and abuse the public trust.”

“Until today, police officers who framed an innocent person — for instance falsifying or planting evidence — could get a free pass,” Ali said in an email. “After the bogus charges were dismissed, the innocent person whose life had been upended had no recourse in court. That unjust rule applied across most of the country. Not anymore.”

Thompson took his case to Washington after the Second Circuit ruled against him, determining that a malicious prosecution claim brought under section 1983 of federal law requires "affirmative indications of innocence." In Thompson's case, the lower courts said that meant specific reasons for why the case against him was dismissed.

For Kavanaugh and the majority, however, “a favorable termination” from criminal prosecution can be merely a prosecution that ends without a conviction.

If a plaintiff must show that his prosecution ended with an affirmative indication of innocence, Kavanaugh wrote, this would shut down malicious prosecution claims “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,” the ruling continues.

Joined by Chief Justice John Roberts as well as Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Amy Coney Barrett and Stephen Breyer, Kavanaugh noted that no indication of innocence is needed to shroud officers with immunity against civil suits.

On remand, the lower court is directed to find whether malicious prosecution caused the government's seizure of Thompson. 

Attorneys who represented the New York police officers did not respond to a request for comment.

The high court took up the case amid a circuit split, with the Second Circuit and some others saying malicious-prosecution claims required indications of innocence but the 11th Circuit holding that favorable termination is marked by a lack of conviction.

In a dissent of equal length to the majority ruling, Justice Samuel Alito said Thompson had other legal recourse outside federal law. 

"Much more analogous are the common-law torts of false arrest and false imprisonment, which protect against 'every
confinement of the person,' including one effected by 'forcibly detaining [someone] in the public streets,'" Alito wrote, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch.

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