U.S. Supreme Court issues narrow decision in malicious prosecution case

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Key Takeaways

On June 20, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 6-3 ruling in Chiaverini v. Ohio, a case focused on the relationship between probable cause and malicious prosecution claims against local government. The petitioner, a jewelry store owner whose malicious prosecution lawsuit against the City of Napoleon, Ohio was dismissed by the Sixth Circuit because one of the several charges against him had probable cause. He asked the Court overturn that ruling on the grounds that a "charge-specific rule" should apply, allowing for a malicious prosecution claim to move forward for an invalid charge brought alongside charges supported by probable cause, even if it did not cause or lengthen a detention. 

  • County nexus: This case has implications for the ability of  private citizens to file costly civil rights claims against police for alleged malicious prosecution, the vast majority of which are meritless but costly to litigate.
  • NACo advocacy: In Local Government Legal Center Amicus Brief in support of the respondent, NACo urged the Court not to adopt the "charge-specific" rule urged by the petitioners, which would increase liabiltiy for counties indemnifying police officers and run the risk of creating a chilling effect on law enforcement and prosecutors. Learn more here.
  • The Court's ruling: On June 20, the Court issued a 6-3 ruling that narrowly favored the petitioner, holding that that the existence of probable cause for one charge does not “create a categorical bar” against a malicious prosecution claim relating to other charges and vacating the Sixth Circuit's ruling to the contrary. However, the Court did not reject the respondent's position, echoed by the LGLC amicus brief, that unless the invalid charge caused or lengthened a detention, there is no Fourth Amendment violation. Learn more here.

While the Court's decision favored the respondent and remanded the case back to the Sixth Circuit, it does not meaningfully shift existing law and should not have a significant impact on the ability of counties to defend against claims of malicious prosecution so long as they did not extend or cause a detention. 

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