Thursday, September 2, 2021

Speedy trial dismissals no barrier to malicious prosecution claims

If you are the victim of a bad arrest, there are a few claims that might be available to you. One claim is false arrest. Another is malicious prosecution. These claims sound alike, but they carry different elements for the plaintiff to establish. This case involves malicious prosecution, in which the Court of Appeals clarifies the law in favor of plaintiffs. We also have a false arrest claim, which fails.

The case is Kee v. City of New York, issued on August 30. Plaintiff was arrested after the police claimed to see drugs in his car. Plaintiff said he was never even in the car and was not using drugs that day. So he claims the police fabricated the evidence against him. The charges against plaintiff were later dismissed on speedy trial grounds; the prosecution did not bring the claim quickly enough under the statutory deadlines.

Plaintiff sues the police for false arrest and malicious prosecution. Probable cause to arrest is a defense to any false arrest claim. As the Supreme Court has defined the claim, if the police have probable cause to arrest and detain the plaintiff on any charge, even if they did not charge him with that particular offense, then there is no false arrest claim. While plaintiff was charged with drug offenses, the Court of Appeals holds, even if there was no probable cause on those charges, a reasonable police officer would still arrest him for loitering and gambling offenses, both of which arise from plaintiff rolling dice on the streets. So the false arrest claim is gone.

What about malicious prosecution? That claim may proceed if the police persisted in prosecuting the claim without any reasonable basis. Plaintiff says there was no probable cause to prosecute on drug offenses. The Second Circuit (Bianco, Lohier and Abrams [D.J.]) says the police are not entitled to summary judgment on this claim because the parties dispute whether plaintiff was in the drug car.

The real story in this case is the favorable termination element. To win a malicious prosecution claim, the plaintiff has to show the criminal charges terminated in his favor; that proves the charges truly lacked merit. There has been confusion in this Circuit over whether a speedy-trial dismissal constitutes  a favorable termination, that is, whether it really means there was no viable criminal case at all. The real question is whether the criminal court dismissal indicates the criminal defendant was innocent. in 1997, the Second Circuit held in Murphy v. Lynn that we may assume that a speedy-trial dismissal suggests the prosecutors did not think there was a reasonable ground for prosecution. But you know how things work with case law. Over time, lower courts will interpret prior cases differently, and subsequent appellate rulings may cast doubt on a prior ruling, as well. Bottom line: the Second Circuit in Lanning v. City of Glens Falls, 908 F.3d 19 (2d Cir. 2018), a recent malicious prosecution case, did not repudiate the language in Murphy, which remains good law and binding precedent. That's a win for this plaintiff.

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