Monday, April 15, 2024

SCOTUS to Test Probable Cause for Malicious Prosecution Claims

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Monday in Chiaverini v. City of Napoleon, Ohio, a case testing whether a police officer who initiates a baseless criminal charge that causes an unreasonable seizure is liable for a Fourth Amendment violation if the officer had a separate, valid charge based on probable cause. Here's my argument preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission:


Must a plaintiff who lodges a malicious-prosecution claim show that the officers lacked probable cause for every crime charged, or only for the charge that led to the plaintiff’s arrest and detention?


Jascha Chiaverini managed a jewelry store in Napoleon, Ohio, called the Diamond and Gold Outlet, owned by Chiaverini, Inc. On November 16, 2016, Brent Burns came to the Outlet and sold Chiaverini a ring and diamond earrings for $45. (Burns had sold Chiaverini jewelry “[o]n several past occasions.”) Burns affirmed that he owned the items.

That same day, David and Christina Hill called the Outlet and asked if anyone sold their ring. Chiaverini denied buying the ring, but David said that he knew Chiaverini bought it from Burns. Chiaverini and the Hills then both called the police.

David Hill went to the Outlet, followed closely by Officers David Stewart and Nicholas Evanoff. David gave a description of the stolen items to Officer Stewart, while Chiaverini provided the officers with photos of the jewelry and information on Burns. Before leaving, Officer Evanoff instructed Chiaverini not to sell the items.

(Just for a little more context: Chiaverini points out in his brief that Officer Evanoff co-owned Star Pawn, a nearby store that sometimes competed with the Outlet for business. Since the events giving rise to this case, Evanoff was convicted on federal felony charges. He was deposed for this case while in federal prison.)

Officer Stewart wrote an initial report and later added additional details. Among the updates, Officer Stewart wrote that Chiaverini told Officer Evanoff that “the reason he bought the ring and kept records regarding the purchase, was because he suspected that it was in fact stolen.” Officer Evanoff later said that Chiaverini “stated he believed . . . the ring to be stolen” and “[t]hat’s why he filled out the buy card, because Brent Burns normally sold him fake jewelry.”

Officer Stewart justified omitting these statements from his initial report, because “Burns was the suspect, not” Chiaverini. According to Officer Stewart, when Chiaverini became a suspect, Officer Stewart updated the report, consistent with the practice of the department. Nevertheless, Chiaverini categorically denied making these statements. (According to Chiaverini, he “did not suspect the Burns jewelry was stolen when he purchased it (nor did he tell anyone otherwise).”)

The police sent a “hold letter” to Chiaverini, directing him to “hold this item . . . as evidence of the crime of Theft” and to “retain[] the items.” It also directed him to “release these items to David or Christina Hill.” After Chiaverini received the letter, Christina came to the Outlet and asked for the items. Chiaverini refused to turn them over, however, based on the letter’s directive to hold them.

The police then returned to the Outlet and directed Chiaverini to release the items to the Hills. Chiaverini refused, believing that this “would have been a criminal act.” Moreover, Chiaverini’s attorney advised him to hold onto the items.

Two days later, Chiaverini confronted Chief Robert Weitzel outside the police station. Chiaverini asked about the hold letter, in particular, what Chiaverini understood as conflicting directives (not to release the property, but to release it to the Hills). Chief Weitzel recalled that Chiaverini told him that he (Chiaverini) did not need to comply with the hold letter and that he would not release the items to the Hills. Chief Weitzel also recalled that Chiaverini “alluded to the fact that he didn’t have a [precious-metal-dealers] license.” The police later confirmed that Chiaverini’s license was inactive.

Officer Stewart sent the police reports to the City of Napoleon’s lawyer, Billy Harmon. Harmon drafted warrant templates for the officers to complete. As part of the templates, Harmon identified Chiaverini’s potential criminal offenses as receiving stolen property, operating without a valid license as a pawnbroker and as a precious-metals dealer, money laundering, and engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity.

Officer Evanoff prepared and signed a Probable Cause Affidavit and applied for search and arrest warrants. Officer Evanoff also signed criminal complaints charging Chiaverini with receiving stolen property, violations of the Ohio Precious Metals Dealers Act, and money laundering. Of the three charges, money laundering was the only felony. A judge signed the search and arrest warrants.

The police then searched the Outlet and arrested Chiaverini. They also seized the Hills’ stolen jewelry and items related to licenses, sales, and purchases of precious metals, including other jewelry and the store’s three computers. Chiaverini remained in custody for three days.

The same judge who issued Chiaverini’s warrants held a preliminary hearing and found that probable cause existed. The judge bound over all charges for trial. Later, however, the charges were dismissed when the prosecution declined to present the case to a grand jury. The court ruled that the charges were not timely presented to a grand jury.

Chiaverini sued Officers Evanoff and Stewart, other individuals, and the City of Napoleon alleging several constitutional violations, including a claim that the officers initiated the money-laundering charge against Chiaverini without probable cause and that this led to Chiaverini’s unlawful arrest and detention. (The parties refer to this as a Fourth Amendment “malicious-prosecution” claim.) The district court dismissed the case, however, concluding that probable cause supported the search and arrest warrants against Chiaverini. The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed, and this appeal followed.


In order to prevail in a Fourth Amendment malicious-prosecution case, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant instituted a legal process “without any probable cause” and with “malicious motive”; that the plaintiff’s case ended favorably; and that the plaintiff suffered a harm “housed in the Fourth Amendment” (for example, a seizure). Thompson v. Clark, 142 S. Ct. 1332 (2022). This case focuses on the first part of that test, “without any probable cause,” as it relates to the money-laundering charge.

Chiaverini argued in the Sixth Circuit that the officers lacked probable cause because Chiaverini did not know the jewelry was stolen at the time of purchase, and that the only evidence to the contrary came from the officers’ false statements. He also argued that they lacked probable cause because there was no basis for finding that the jewelry purchased for $45 met the money-laundering statute’s requirement that the transaction be worth $1,000 or more. Chiaverini contends that he demonstrated a lack of probable cause by showing that the officers lacked probable cause for the specific charge, money laundering.

But the Sixth Circuit disagreed. The Sixth Circuit ruled that Chiaverini had to prove that the officers lacked probable cause for all three charges. Under this approach, the officers could escape liability (as they did) by showing that they had probable cause for just one or two of the three charges, even if not for money laundering.

The parties argue whether a Fourth Amendment malicious-prosecution claim requires a plaintiff to prove the lack of probable cause for the specific charge, or whether such a claim requires a plaintiff to prove lack of probable cause for any of the several charges.

Chiaverini argues for the charge-specific approach. He contends that the charge-specific rule is consistent with treatises, American cases, and English cases from around the time of Section 1983’s enactment (in 1871). He says that all of these sources support and employ the charge-specific rule in malicious-prosecution cases.

Chiaverini contends that because “the American tort-law consensus as of 1871” applied the charge-specific rule, “Thompson dictates that this Court should ‘similarly [apply that rule to] the Fourth Amendment claim under Section 1983 for malicious prosecution’ so long as doing so is ‘consistent . . . with the values and purposes of the Fourth Amendment.’” He claims that the Court in Thompson identified two “values and purposes of the Fourth Amendment.” First, “a common-law tort rule applied to a Fourth Amendment malicious-prosecution claim cannot lead to arbitrary results.” But Chiaverini asserts that the any-crime rule would lead to arbitrary results, for example, “insulating an officer from liability where there is probable cause for even the smallest offense and by allowing an individual’s right to seek redress to turn on the fortuity of whether a prosecutor decides to bring charges all at once or in separate proceedings.” Second, a common-law tort rule “cannot lead to unwarranted civil suits.” But Chiaverini says that “[t]he charge-specific rule won’t: Police officers will still be protected by other doctrines, including qualified immunity.”

Chiaverini argues that the any-crime rule would “undermine key features of” the Warrant Clause. According to Chiaverini, that’s because an officer could “use deliberately falsified allegations” or even “trumped-up charges” to show probable cause to support a warrant, so long as they had actual probable cause based on another crime. Moreover, for these same reasons, the any-crime rule “makes it impossible for [an] independent party to properly weigh the evidence” in support of a warrant.

Chiaverini argues that “[t]he charge-specific rule is also more consistent than the any-crime rule with the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on ‘unreasonable seizures.’” He says that at the time of the Founding, the Fourth Amendment required legal process confirming probable cause. But he claims that “[t]he only legal process in [his] case was the issuance of a warrant based on outright misrepresentations by police officers.” He asserts that probable cause only supporting a different charge does not provide enough process.

Finally, Chiaverini argues that the Sixth Circuit’s reasons for adopting the any-crime rule do not “survive[] scrutiny.” For one, he says that the Sixth Circuit’s justification that an any-crime rule should apply equally to malicious-prosecution claims as to warrantless arrest claims (where the any-crime rule already applies) doesn’t account for the fact that “this Court’s doctrine treats warrantless arrests differently from arrests pursuant to legal process. For another, he contends that the Sixth Circuit wrongly “assumed that it wouldn’t matter to a plaintiff whether he was charged with one count or several.” To the contrary, Chiaverini says that “the number and severity of the counts matter a great deal . . . affect[ing] the duration of the pretrial seizure and the amount and availability of bail, for instance.” Finally, Chiaverini argues that the officers’ proffered “length-of-detention” rule “wasn’t the rule [they] pressed below, and . . . strays far from the question presented in this case.”

The government weighs in to argue that the “[a] person who faced a baseless criminal charge may bring a Fourth Amendment malicious-prosecution claim . . . even if he also faced a valid charge . . . [b]ut the person must show that the baseless charge cause an unreasonable seizure.” The government says that a baseless charge can cause an unreasonable seizure when “the inclusion of the baseless charge can unreasonably prolong a suspect’s pretrial detention . . . or cause an unreasonable seizure in some other way.” (This is the “length-of-detention” rule that Chiaverini refers to.) In order to determine this, the government claims that courts should “proceed charge by charge in evaluating the probable-cause element of the” claim, like nineteenth-century courts did with malicious-prosecution claims. The government argues that the Court should articulate this correct test and remand the case to the lower courts to apply it in the first instance.

The officers argue that in order for Chiaverini to prevail, he must “prove that the malicious prosecution resulted in a seizure.” Thompson v. Clark, 142 S. Ct. 1332 (2022). But they contend that Chiaverini cannot prove this, for the simple reason that “both the nature and duration of his seizure were reasonable and justified by two indisputably legitimate charges.” The officers assert that the district court and the Sixth Circuit both concluded that “there was probable cause to arrest and prosecute Chiaverini for both his receipt of stolen property and the licensure violation,” irrespective of the money-laundering charge.

The officers claim that Chiaverini’s arguments to the contrary “are unavailing.” They say that Chiaverini’s invocation of nineteenth-century common law ignores the fact that “the Fourth Amendment provides the substantive law . . . and [Chiaverini’s] every-crime rule is inconsistent with the requirement that the alleged malicious prosecution resulted in a seizure.” Moreover, they assert that “the nineteenth-century common law remedied other injuries that the Fourth Amendment does not recognize, including purely reputational or defamatory harms.” In sum, they contend that “[i]t would be inconsistent with the values and purposes of the Fourth Amendment, apparent from its text, to import nineteenth-century common law designed to remedy other types of injuries not guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment.”

The officers argue next that Chiaverini’s any-crime rule “is inconsistent with the Fourth Amendment’s values and purposes.” For example, as above, “it is severed from the requirement of a seizure.” Moreover, they contend that the any-crime rule would allow a plaintiff merely to allege that an officer fabricated a charge, thus “creat[ing] a per se Fourth Amendment claim based on the subjective state of mind of an officer, which would be foreign to and in conflict with longstanding Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.” They assert that the officers did not fabricate evidence in Chiaverini’s case, but even if they did, the officers’ “ulterior motives do not negate the probable cause for [Chiaverini’s] reasonable seizure on two other charges.”

The officers argue that Chiaverini’s “claim does not invoke the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against unreasonable seizures or the Warrant Clause.” But even if the Warrant Clause applied here, they say that a warrant “is nonetheless valid if the falsehoods do not negate probable cause.” According to the officers, here they don’t.

Finally, the officers argue that the Court should decline the government’s invitation to remand the case. They say that the Court can articulate the test and apply it itself. They contend that “[t]he Court should not be concerned that Chiaverini declined to argue that his “unfounded charges changed the nature of his seizure or prolonged his detention.” They assert that Chiaverini knew of this argument, declined to raise it, and therefore waived it.


This case will determine whether Chiaverini (and others like him) can succeed on a malicious-prosecution cause of action where officers had probable cause for some charges, but not for the charge(s) that led to the plaintiff’s particular seizure (considering its nature and extent). For Chiaverini and the City of Napoleon, this could be significant: he originally sought “damages in excess of $3 million.” 

The parties and the government give the Court three alternatives. Chiaverini argues that a plaintiff need only show that officers lacked probable cause in relation to the particular charge that resulted in a plaintiff’s particular seizure. By this reckoning, it doesn’t matter if the officers had probable cause for any other charges.

The officers, in sharp contrast, seem to argue that a plaintiff must demonstrate that the officers lacked probable cause on all charges, at least insofar as other charges would independently justify “both the nature and duration of [the] seizure.” But it’s not at all clear that the other two charges against Chiaverini would justify “both the nature and duration of [his] seizure.” In other words, the other two charges may only justify a seizure of a lesser “nature and duration.” (Remember that the other two charges were misdemeanors; the money-laundering charge was the only felony.) Still, the officers argue that “both the nature and duration of [Chiaverini’s] seizure were reasonable and justified by two indisputably legitimate charges.”

The government offers something of a middle ground. The government contends that a plaintiff can succeed on a malicious-prosecution claim when the charge that lacked probable cause “unreasonably prolong[ed] a suspect’s pretrial detention . . . or cause[d] an unreasonable seizure in some other way.” (The officers seem to argue that their approach is consistent with the government’s approach. But again: it’s not at all clear that the other two charges would justify “both the nature and duration of [his] seizure.” As misdemeanors, they might have led to a lesser “nature and duration of . . . seizure.”) The government also argues for a remand to apply its test. This middle-ground approach may be attractive to the Court.

In addition to the impact on Chiaverini, the city, and others like them, the case is also significant because it will resolve a circuit split. At least three circuits ruled differently than the Sixth Circuit, and several circuits have asked the Court to resolve the question. This case will resolve it.

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