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High court hears debate over civil rights claims for dismissed charges

In a case lodged by a father who says he was wrongly accused of sexually abusing his infant daughter, the Supreme Court heard arguments over his ability to seek damages for unreasonable seizure.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Justices did not show their hand as to which they were likely to rule during the Supreme Court's hearing Tuesday of a thorny civil rights case from a Brooklyn man who was tackled and handcuffed after a case of diaper rash brought police to his door.

The warrantless search happened on Jan. 15, 2014, after a woman called police because she was worried about red marks on her 1-week-old niece’s bottom.

Larry Thompson’s lawyers previously noted in their petition to the court that baby Nala’s aunt has “cognitive delays” and is in the care of her sister, Talleta, and Nala’s father, Thompson.

When Talleta let emergency medical technicians inside their apartment that night, Thompson showed them the door. Similarly unwelcoming of the police officers who arrived next, Thompson asked to see a warrant and to speak with their sergeant.

New York City says Thompson shoved the officers when they tried to come in. 

Represented by Amir Ali of the MacArthur Justice Center, Thompson says officers took him into custody but never got a warrant before entering his home and the EMTs confirmed there were no signs of child sexual abuse.

Diaper rash was confirmed at the hospital, but Thompson still spent two days in jail. It would be another three months before the city dismissed the charges against Thompson, who was unwilling to take a plea deal and later filed suit for violations of his Fourth Amendment rights, seeking damages from the officers.

The district court and Second Circuit both ruled against Thompson, finding that a malicious prosecution claim brought under section 1983 of federal law requires "affirmative indications of innocence," a standard that was not satisfied because the prosecution and trial court didn't provide specific reasons for the dismissal of the case against Thompson.

The Supreme Court agreed to take up the case in March.

“He was seized by an arrest in the first instance and then seized pursuant to the initiation of legal process when the false criminal complaint was what held him over the complaint,” Ali told the high court Tuesday.

Chief Justice John Roberts focused on the issue of Thompson being held after the police filed a criminal complaint against him.

“As I understand what happened, your client was arrested without probable cause and eventually he was held for 39 hours, and then released on his own recognizance and sometime during that period, the criminal complaint was filed. Would he have been released any sooner had the criminal complaint not been filed?” Roberts asked.

Ali responded that if the case is remanded to the Second Circuit, they will put forth that argument.

Meanwhile, attorney John Moore said on behalf of the New York police officers Tuesday that the Manhattan-based appeals court had gotten the case right the first time.

“The Second Circuit correctly interpreted the favorable termination requirement of petitioners' malicious prosecution claim. The circuit’s rule requires that a petitioner bringing a malicious prosecution claim demonstrate that the underlying criminal charges ended in a manner indicative of innocence,” Moore said.

Thompson’s lawyer maintained that his client’s seizure “was caused by the initiation of legal process" based on a false accusation put forth by the officers.

“What we would have to prove for that first seizure is that he would have been released had that false criminal complaint not been filed. In other words, had respondent told the truth of what had happened to the prosecutor, he would have been released,” Ali said of the officers’ conduct. “Then, because he had done nothing criminal there would be nothing to hold him for. The reason he was held was because and solely because of fabricated evidence that was produced by respondent.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked how Thompson's case was not doomed by the jury's finding that the police officers had probable cause to arrest him.

“Pardon my ignorance, but I thought that the jury there was charged that any probable cause to arrest on any charge was enough,” she said. “And the jury voted for respondents.”

Justice Brett Kavanaugh also clarified that Ali's arguments aren't centered on false arrest because he had previously lost a false arrest claim in this case.

For New York City, Moore maintained that Thompson’s malicious prosecution claim was not cognizable under the Fourth Amendment, calling his opponent’s argument misplaced. In a brief filed with the court, the city's attorney argued that the officers could not have known the details about baby Nala and her aunt on the night of Thompson’s arrest and are therefore entitled to qualified immunity.

One of the issues the Supreme is being asked to resolve concerns whether the criminal case against Thompson needed to end in a way that indicates innocence for him to successfully allege malicious prosecution.

Sotomayor told Moore that it seemed like an issue the court should intervene in.

“We have eight circuits that are now applying a favorable termination rule and seven of them are applying one variant of that rule, and an eighth comes along and says we ought to be applying another variant of that rule," Sotomayor said. "And then when you look at the opinion of that eighth court, you know, it looks pretty good...it might be the right position. So, eight circuits are applying a favorable termination rule, seven of them might be doing it the wrong way. That seems like a case we should resolve."

In taking up the case, the justices also agreed to resolve whether it is the government’s burden to prove the existence of exigency when faced with a claim over warrantless entry. While the Third, Sixth, Ninth and 10th Circuits say it is, the Second, Seventh and Eighth Circuits have held it is the plaintiff’s burden to prove exigency was nonexistent.

Arguing in support of Thompson, Jonathan Ellis, assistant to the U.S. Solicitor General, also spoke before the court Monday.

“Because petitioner’s section 1983 claim, like a malicious prosecution claim, challenges the validity of a criminal proceeding against him, incorporating a favorable termination element would well serve those purposes,” Ellis said.

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