One Child-Abuse Probe, Two Circuit Splits for Justices to Solve

The petitioner seeks damages from police who searched home after his sister-in-law mistook his newborn’s diaper rash for something far worse.

(Image by Mahesh Patel from Pixabay via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court took up a thorny civil rights case Monday from a Brooklyn man who got tackled and handcuffed after a case of diaper rash brought police to his door.

As laid out in the petition for a writ of certiorari, 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.

The petition notes that baby Nala’s aunt has “cognitive delays” and is in the care of her sister, Talleta, and Nala’s father, Larry 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.

The opposition brief on behalf of New York City says Thompson shoved the officers when tried to come in. 

“Thompson prevented police officers from confirming the infant was safe, leading to a struggle and then the officers’ entry into the apartment to ensure the infant’s safety,” city attorney Richard Dearing wrote.

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

Diaper rash was confirmed at the hospital, and Thompson 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 and later filed suit for violations of his Fourth Amendment rights.

He appealed unsuccessfully when the city won judgment as a matter of law and asks the Supreme Court now to resolve two issues that have divided the federal circuits.

One of the knots concerns whether the criminal case against Thompson needed to end in a way that indicates innocence if he is to allege malicious prosecution.

As Ali notes, such a showing is tantamount to “requiring people who are wrongfully and unreasonably accused of crimes to object when the prosecution attempts to dismiss the charges against them and insist on going to trial.”

Relying on indications-of-innocence “causes perverse results,” Ali added.

“It puts a victim of malicious charges in the untenable position of having to object to the dismissal of the bogus charges or forgo the right to hold the relevant government actors accountable,” the petition states. “If the prosecution or court declines to state his innocence on the record, then the victim presumably must insist on being tried so that he can obtain acquittal. Simply put, it requires a victim to choose to risk subjecting himself to criminal penalties in order to preserve his right to later bring a malicious prosecution claim.”

In addition to this point, the justices 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 that it is the plaintiff’s burden to prove that exigency was nonexistent.

Neither side has returned a request for comment Monday.

In the government’s brief, city attorney Dearing says the officers could not have known the details about baby Nala and her aunt on the night of Thompson’s arrest.

“Based on what the officers did know the question of exigency was at the very least debatable, and that is enough to entitle them to qualified immunity,” he wrote.

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