Section 1983 claim for malicious criminal prosecution

Section 1983 and malicious prosecution

Malicious Criminal Prosecution

Here, we discuss a Section 1983 claim for malicious criminal prosecution.

Recently, the Fifth Circuit issued its opinion in Winfrey v. Rogers, 901 F.3d 483 (5th Cir. 2018). In that case, Richard Winfrey (“Junior”)  was arrested and charged with murder after a botched investigation and various alleged violations of Junior’s Fourth Amendment rights.

The State tried him on murder charges. The jury acquitted in 29 minutes. By that time, he had served 16 months in prison.

Junior files a Section 1983 claim.

Junior filed suit against several parties, including Deputy Sheriff Lenard Johnson.

He claimed that Johnson violated his rights by signing an arrest warrant affidavit that lacked probable cause by omitting and misstating key facts. This unconstitutional warrant, he alleged, resulted in his unlawful arrest and imprisonment.

Johnson moved for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. The district court granted Johnson’s motion, and Junior appealed.

The Fifth Circuit reverses.

The numerous problems with the investigation are outlined in the Court’s opinion. Suffice it to say, the Sheriff’s department was alleged to have used false information to secure arrest and search warrants and failed to disclose exculpatory evidence.

At the outset, the Court had to decide which constitutional provision was at issue.

The Court noted that although there is no “freestanding constitutional right to be free from malicious prosecution,” the initiation of criminal charges without probable cause may set in force events that run afoul of explicit constitutional protection – – the Fourth Amendment if the accused is seized and arrested, for example.

Because Junior alleged that Johnson signed an objectively unreasonable arrest warrant affidavit, the Court analyzed the case as a Fourth Amendment malicious prosecution claim.

The statute of limitation on malicious criminal prosecution.

Section 1983 provides a federal cause of action, but federal district courts look to the statute of limitations for personal injury torts used by the state in which the district court sits.

On the other hand, the question of when the statute begins to run on a cause of action is a question of federal law.

So, when did the statute of limitation begin to run on Junior’s claim?

False imprisonment vs. malicious criminal prosecution.

The Fifth Circuit explained that determining when the statute of limitation began to run “depends on whether Junior’s claim more closely resembles one for false imprisonment or one for malicious prosecution.”

A false imprisonment claim is based upon “detention without legal process.” It “begins to run at the time the claimant becomes detained.”

A malicious prosecution claim, on the other hand, is based upon “detention accompanied by wrongful institution of legal process.” The claim does not accrue (and, therefore, the statute does not begin to run) until the prosecution ends in the Section 1983 plaintiff’s favor.

The Fifth Circuit held that Junior’s claim was more like the tort of malicious prosecution. Junior was arrested through the wrongful institution of legal process: an arrest pursuant to a warrant, issued through the normal legal process, that is alleged to contain numerous material omissions and misstatements.

“Junior thus alleges a wrongful institution of legal process—an unlawful arrest pursuant to a warrant—instead of a detention with no legal process. Because Junior’s claim suggests malicious prosecution rather than false imprisonment, his claim accrued when his criminal proceedings ended in his favor.”

What about qualified immunity?

We previously wrote here about the defense of qualified immunity. In this case, Johnson raised it as a defense to Junior’s claims.

As the Fifth Circuit explained, when resolving qualified immunity on summary judgment, courts determine (1) whether the facts, taken in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury, show the officer violated a federal right and (2) whether the right was “clearly established” when the violation occurred.

The Court explained: “Here, the clearly established constitutional right asserted by Junior is to be free from police arrest without a good faith showing of probable cause.”

Ever since the United States Supreme Court’s 1978 decision in Franks v. Delaware, “it has been clearly established that a defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights are violated if (1) the affiant, in support of the warrant, includes a false statement knowingly and intentionally, or with reckless disregard for the truth and (2) the allegedly false statement is necessary to the finding of probable cause.”

Yet, negligence alone will not defeat qualified immunity. A proven misstatement can vitiate an affidavit only if it is established that the misstatement was the product of deliberate falsehood or of reckless disregard for the truth. Recklessness requires proof that the defendant in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of the statement.

Junior’s claim meets the first element of Franks

The Court concluded that Junior alleged a clearly established constitutional violation. Under the first prong of Franks, Junior must present evidence that Johnson, through material omissions or otherwise, made “a false statement knowingly and intentionally, or with reckless disregard for the truth.”

Junior provided much evidence that Johnson made false statements in his affidavit. Those are outlined in the Court’s opinion. The Court concluded that the question of whether Johnson gave false information knowingly or in reckless disregard of the truth was for a jury to decide.

Junior was not out of the woods yet.

Junior still had to meet the second prong of Franks – whether the allegedly false statement was necessary to the finding of probable cause by the judge who issued the arrest and search warrants.

Put another way, if the evidence presented to the judge would have established probable cause in the absence of Johnson’s false affidavit, Junior has a problem.

The Fifth Circuit explained: “To determine whether the false statement was necessary for this finding, Franks requires us to consider the faulty affidavit as if those errors and omissions were removed. We then must examine the ‘corrected affidavit’ and determine whether probable cause for the issuance of the warrant survives the deleted false statements and material omissions.

After examining the “totality of the circumstances,” the Court held that the “corrected affidavit” did not contain sufficient information to satisfy the probable cause requirement. Put another way, had the state court judge been given a truthful affidavit, he would not have issued a warrant for Junior’s arrest.

The Fifth Circuit, therefore, remanded the case to the district court for trial.

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