Section 1983 Malicious Prosecution (VI): Third and Fourth Circuit Decisions with a Fabrication of Evidence Twist
I blogged on Sept. 11, 2009, about the basic elements of so-called section 1983 “malicious prosecution” claims. I then blogged on 9-8-11, 9-26-11, 8-7-13, 4-8-14 and 5-11-15 about section 1983 malicious prosecution cases in the circuits.
What follows are recent section 1983 malicious prosecution/fabrication of evidence decisions from the Third and Fourth Circuits that I ran across in preparing the 2015 Update to my treatise, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (4th ed. West).
Halsey v. Pfeiffer (3rd Circuit)
In Halsey v. Pfeiffer, 750 F.3d 273 (3rd Cir. 2014), an important case that couples section 1983 fabrication of evidence and malicious prosecution claims. the plaintiff, wrongly imprisoned for murder for over 20 years, sued various law enforcement officers and others alleging (1) the fabrication of his oral confession that led to the prosecutor filing charges against him and (2) malicious prosecution and (3) coercing him into signing the fabricated confession which was crucial at his trial. Reversing the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the defendants, the Third Circuit explained:
First, we reaffirm what has been apparent for decades to all reasonable police officers: a police officer who fabricates evidence against a criminal defendant to obtain his conviction violates the defendant’s constitutional right to due process of law. Second, we reinstate[plaintiff’s] malicious prosecution claim, principally because the prosecutor instrumental in the initiation of the criminal case against [plaintiff] has acknowledged that the false confession the [defendants] claimed they obtained from [plaintiff] contributed to the prosecutor’s decision to charge [plaintiff], and for that reason we will not treat the decision to prosecute as an intervening act absolving [defendants] from liability. Moreover, without that false confession, there would not have been direct evidence linking [plaintiff] to the crimes so that the prosecutor would not have had cause to prosecute [plaintiff]. …
In the course of its discussion in Halsey, the Third Circuit commented that in Johnson v. Knorr, 477 F.3d 75 (3rd Cir. 2007), it had not addressed the question, which it now answered in the affirmative, whether a fabrication claim could give rise to a stand-alone due process cause of action. It also observed that in this case any Fourth Amendment seizure had long since ended: it was the fabricated evidence that led to the unfair trial, the wrongful conviction and plaintiff’s incarceration. Further, this was analytically different from a section 1983 malicious prosecution claim as to which probable cause is a defense. Finally, as to plaintiff’s section 1983 Fourth Amendment malicious prosecution claim, the Third Circuit determined that the prosecutor’s decision to prosecute was not an intervening act that severed the initiation of prosecution from the defendants. The district court erred in concluding that the prosecutor’s decision to prosecute was made without regard to the defendants’ alleged misconduct. The district court further erred in finding that there would have been probable cause even without plaintiff’s confession: there were genuine issues of material fact on this question.
Massey v. Ojaniit (4th Circuit)
The Fourth Circuit cited the Third Circuit’s decision in Halsey in Massey v. Ojaniit, 759 F.3d 343 (4th Cir. 2014), another case coupling section 1983 fabrication of evidence and malicious prosecution claims. In this case, the plaintiff, released after almost twelve years of imprisonment, sued city police officers alleging that they fabricated evidence against him at trial to obtain his conviction in violation of due process. Ruling against the plaintiff, the Fourth Circuit observed that fabrication of evidence standing alone was not enough: the plaintiff had to allege adequate facts to show that the loss of liberty–his conviction and subsequent incarceration–was caused by the fabrication. This requirement included both cause in fact and proximate cause. Here, however, the plaintiff’s conviction was not caused by the alleged fabrication because the prosecution focused at trial on positive in-court identifications. In addition, the conviction was not the foreseeable result of the alleged fabrication.
The plaintiff in Massey also alleged a Fourth Amendment malicious prosecution claim, focusing on the fabricated evidence’s role in bringing about plaintiff’s arrest and his prosecution. Plaintiff lost here as well because he did not allege sufficient facts to undermine the grand jury’s probable cause determination. In other words, he did not sufficiently allege materiality of the fabricated evidence: even removing the fabricated evidence, there was sufficient evidence for a finding of probable cause.
Both cases recognize the availability of stand-alone due process fabrication of evidence claims. But while the plaintiff in Halsey properly alleged that the fabricated evidence led to his unfair trial, conviction and incarceration, the plaintiff in Massey did not.
Both cases also have in common section 1983 Fourth Amendment malicious prosecution claims and the all-important inquiry into causation–cause in fact and proximate cause–as well as the requirement of absence of probable cause. The Halsey plaintiff was able to persuade the Third Circuit that the prosecutor’s decision to prosecute was not a superseding cause and that there was a triable issue regarding the absence of probable cause. In contrast, the Massey plaintiff ‘s allegations were insufficient to persuade the Fourth Circuit that the grand jury’s probable cause determination was not a cause in fact of his arrest and prosecution.
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