Was the trial court right in dismissing Petitioner’s claims of malicious prosecution and outrage?
Petitioner, Jeremiah Goodwin, was visiting a friend in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Together they visited bars, restaurants and Super Bowl-themed events throughout the area. During this same timeframe, a Shepherdstown University student was sexually assaulted on campus. Petitioner was questioned and later arrested for the sexual assault. Petitioner alleges that Respondents intentionally falsified the victim’s description of the assailant and used an improper, suggestive photo array in an attempt to justify his arrest. Petitioner also alleges that the owner of a Shepherdstown restaurant read about Petitioner’s arrest in the newspaper and notified police that Petitioner was, in fact, at the restaurant when the victim was assaulted. Respondents falsely informed the owner that the time of the arrest was incorrectly reported in the newspaper and also failed to inform Petitioner or his attorney that an alibi witness had come forward.
The prosecuting attorney made several failed attempts to indict Petitioner, but was eventually successful. After a year, however, the state voluntarily dismissed the charge. Petitioner then sued Respondents for malicious prosecution and intentional infliction of emotion distress (i.e., outrage.) Respondents filed a motion to dismiss. The trial court granted Respondents’ motion, finding that the underlying charge was not terminated favorably to Petitioner because the dismissal was “without prejudice.” The trial court also found that the underlying charge was supported by probable cause. With regard to the outrage claim, the trial court found that a police officer had no duty to disclose information discovered in the course of an investigation--even exculpatory information.
Petitioner argues that the state’s voluntary dismissal of the indictment is a favorable termination for malicious prosecution purposes. Petitioner cites Owens v. Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office, 767 F.3d 379 (4th Cir. 2014). In Owens, the Fourth Circuit upheld a Section 1983 claim where police withheld exculpatory evidence and the charges were later dismissed via a nolle prosequi. According to Petitioner, accepting the trial court’s view of the law would give the state “unlimited ability to engage in malicious prosecutions and misconduct so long as, at the moment of truth, they withdraw the prosecution before a jury acquittal or a dismissal with prejudice from the court.”
The grand jury’s finding of probable cause was not conclusive. Instead, it is treated as prima facie proof and, therefore, may be rebutted “by showing that the indictment was procured by fraud, perjury or falsified evidence.” Here, the allegations that police falsified the description given by the victim, the use of an overly suggestive array, and the withholding of an independent alibi witness are sufficient to rebut the presumption.
With regard to duty, Petitioner again cites Owens for the proposition that “a police officer violates clearly established constitutionally law when he suppresses material exculpatory evidence.” Here, the officers knew that “their willful suppression of the greatest piece of exculpatory evidence in the case would have been for the purpose of continuing a prosecution that, in the wake of said alibi, the officers would have surely known was unfounded.” Thus, the dismissal of the outrage claim was error.
Respondents cite Heck v. Humphry, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), arguing that Heck “made it blatantly clear that a dismissal without prejudice is not a favorable termination that could support a claim for malicious prosecution.” Because the prosecuting attorney here could conceivably refile charges against Petitioner now or sometime in the future, the charges have not been favorably terminated. Respondents also distinguished Owens, insisting that under Fourth Circuit law a termination is only favorable when it is “in such manner that [the charges] cannot be revived.”
With regard to probable cause, respondents note that there were three independent findings of probable cause--(1) by the magistrate who issued the arrest warrant, (2) by the grand jury itself, and (3) by the magistrate who conducted the preliminary hearing. Respondents acknowledge that an official probable cause finding can be rebutted, but suggest that the officers were not under any duty to disclose the identity of the alibi witness. Therefore, “the grand jury’s finding of probably cause…stands.”
According to Respondents, the duty to disclose exculpatory evidence under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963) only applies to “the prosecution” and not to law enforcement officers engaged in criminal investigation. There is no basis for an outrage claim because Respondents did not breach any legal duty and, a fortiori, did not act outrageously.
The Supreme Court has placed this case on its Rule 20 docket. Therefore, the Court appears to be poised to address some of the unanswered questions regarding the elements necessary to prove a malicious prosecution claim. From a legal and public policy standpoint, it appears that Petitioner has the better argument--especially in light of the fact that we are only at the motion to dismiss stage.