The Declaration of Independence tells us: the right to “liberty” is unalienable. But what happens when the government deprives someone of liberty without legal justification? When the police wrongfully arrest or prosecute someone, it’s time to call an Ohio civil rights lawyer.
What is “malicious prosecution?”
Put simply, malicious prosecution is starting a criminal prosecution without probable cause to believe the person charged committed a crime. A person can sue for malicious prosecution under Ohio law or federal law. Although they vary slightly, the elements are essentially the same under both:
- The defendant made, influenced, or participated in the decision to start a criminal prosecution against the plaintiff;
- There was no probable cause to support the criminal prosecution;
- The plaintiff was deprived of liberty because of the prosecution;
- The criminal proceeding ended in favor of the accused.
See, e.g., King v. Harwood, 852 F.3d 568, 580 (6th Cir. 2017) (listing the elements of malicious prosecution under federal law). Ohio law also requires a showing of “malice”—essentially ill will towards the person prosecuted.
Avoiding legal pitfalls in Ohio malicious prosecution cases
There are several technical legal traps to avoid in malicious prosecution cases. They require the help of a seasoned Ohio civil rights attorney to navigate.
First, a grand jury indictment often limits one’s ability to sue for malicious prosecution. A grand jury indictment raises a presumption that probable cause exists to prosecute. If probable cause exists, a plaintiff cannot later sue for malicious prosecution. This presumption can be rebutted though. If the police gave false evidence that led to the grand jury even hearing the case, the probable cause presumption can be overcome. King, 852 F.3d at 587–88. The problem for plaintiffs, however, is that the false evidence must be separate from the officer’s testimony to the grand jury itself. Police officers have absolute immunity from suit for their grand jury testimony, even if false.
Second, the government might tempt the accused to waive his or her right to sue for malicious prosecution in exchange for dropping the criminal charges. This is what’s known as a “release-dismissal agreement.” The threat of criminal prosecution—even on false charges—can be enough to intimidate victims of police abuse to drop their claims to secure their freedom. Even so, the Supreme Court has held these agreements are not automatically improper. Town of Newton v. Rumery, 480 U.S. 386 (1987). Instead, release-dismissal agreements are valid if they are: (1) voluntary; (2) there is no evidence of prosecutor misconduct; and, (3) enforcing the agreement won’t harm the public interest in uncovering government civil rights abuses. Courts examine these factors on a case-by-case basis.
Third, individual police officers often raise the defense of “qualified immunity” in malicious prosecution cases. This defense allows officers to avoid liability unless it was “clearly established” at the time that what they did was unconstitutional. Qualified immunity will frequently stop victims from recovering on their claims. Without the help of skilled Ohio malicious prosecution lawyers, plaintiffs might lose their case even when proving the police violated their constitutional rights.
Pursuing Ohio false arrest claims
A related, but distinct, claim is for “false arrest.” As with malicious prosecution, plaintiffs can sue for false arrest under either Ohio or federal law.
False arrest occurs when the police arrest someone without probable cause or otherwise detain someone improperly. Although the police may briefly detain people without actually arresting them—for example during a traffic stop—any police detention must be reasonable in both length and in scope. If it is not, there might be a claim for false arrest.
Damages in Ohio malicious prosecution and false arrest cases
As with other police misconduct cases, both malicious prosecution and false arrest claims allow victims to recover compensatory and punitive damages, as well as attorneys’ fees. Compensatory damages are designed to make victims whole for their losses. Among other things, that includes pain and suffering, harm to reputation, and the time lost during wrongful detention or imprisonment. Punitive damages, on the other hand, are designed to punish the defendant for the wrongful act and to deter others from similar conduct.
Ohio civil rights attorneys protecting the Constitution
The fundamental right to liberty is at the core of the American legal system. Though most police are dedicated and hard-working public servants, as with any profession, there are some bad apples. If you are the victim of police misconduct, call the Cleveland, Ohio false arrest lawyers at Bolek Besser Glesius LLC.