(CN) - The 4th Circuit restricted the malicious-prosecution claims that investigators must face from the Duke lacrosse players whom they falsely accused of rape in 2006.
Prosecutors in Durham County, N.C., charged David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligman with rape, sexual assault and kidnapping after Crystal Mangum claimed that she was attacked while hired to strip at a Duke lacrosse team party.
The case made national headlines and dragged on for eight months before it eventually fell apart. District Attorney Michael Nifong was eventually disbarred for prosecuting the spurious claims.
After the state took over and dismissed charges, the three students and 41 other members of the 2005-06 Duke University lacrosse team sued the investigating police officers, prosecutors and Durham in three separate actions.
A federal judge largely refused to grant immunity to the police officers and city of Durham, but the 4th Circuit proved more sympathetic in a consolidated appeal.
The Richmond, Va.-based federal appeals court upheld only the state claims of malicious prosecution against two police officers.
Evans, Finnerty and Seligman [the Evans plaintiffs] "do not allege that Officers Gottlieb and Himan misled or misinformed Nifong," Judge Diana Motz wrote for a three-judge panel. "Indeed, the Evans plaintiffs expressly allege that, from the outset, the officers candidly briefed Nifong as to the startling weaknesses in the case by 'detail[ing] the extraordinary evidence of innocence and the fatal defects in Mangum's claims" and 'convey[ing] to Nifong that Mangum was not credible.' The Evans plaintiffs nonetheless insist that the officers remain liable because they 'misrepresented, withheld, or falsified evidence' that ultimately influenced the grand jury." (Italics in original.)
The court ruled that, "if the independent act of a prosecutor breaks the causal chain, the fact that the prosecutor misled the grand jury does not render police officers liable."
But the Evans plaintiffs can pursue state claims of malicious prosecution against the same officers.
"North Carolina courts have generally held causation can be established by allegations that the defendant 'instituted, procured, or participated in' a criminal proceeding," Motz wrote. "Given this language, we cannot hold that the district court erred in finding that the Evans plaintiffs pled a state-law malicious prosecution claim as to Officers Gottlieb and Himan."
The other lacrosse players claimed the officers unlawfully seized physical evidence from them based on dishonest supporting affidavits. The court found here, however, that the police had sufficient evidence for the searches even without the false statements.
Even after "correcting the supporting affidavits" to "remove the false statements," the statements "clearly contain sufficient factual bases to establish both probable cause that a rape was committed and 'reasonable grounds' that the named persons committed the rape," Motz wrote.
In a concurring opinion, Judge Harvie Wilkinson used stronger language to express the court's decision.
"Hard cases can and do make bad law, and the costs of these ones - outside of the limited claim we have allowed to proceed - are much too steep," Wilkinson wrote. "The plaintiffs seek to thrust the prospect of monetary liability and burdensome discovery into every meeting between supervisor and subordinate within a police department, every internal communication between police officer and prosecutor, every statement by a police spokesperson, and every effort to invoke judicial process in furtherance of a police investigation. Allowing these claims to proceed would let litigation loose in such a fashion as to impair the ability of the criminal justice system to do its job."
"In sum, we run the risk here of replicating in civil litigation the very maladies that plaintiffs complain infected the criminal process to which they were subjected," he added.
The court also reversed a denial of summary judgment for of Durham, and the officers' motions to dismiss all other state claims.
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