Dismissal Due to the Suppression of Evidence Does Not Satisfy the Favorable Termination Element of a Malicious Prosecution Claim
In January 2010, police arrested Terry Margheim at his home in Greeley, CO on suspicion of domestic violence committed against his girlfriend. Weld County prosecutors then initiated a criminal prosecution against him. Margheim posted a $3,000 bond and was required to comply with a protection order to avoid contact with his girlfriend.
In March 2010, Margheim failed to attend his pre-trial conference. The Weld County court issued a warrant for his arrest, ordered the $3,000 bond forfeited, and ruled that Margheim post a new $6,000 bond if he wished to be released pending resolution.
On April 10, 2010, police arrested Margheim again. Weld County prosecutors initiated a second criminal prosecution based on suspicion that Margheim violated the protection order in the first case. As a result, Margheim’s original bond of $3,000 in the first case was forfeited. On April 12, 2010, Margheim posted the new bond of $6,000 and was released.
On April 22, 2010, Ms. Emela Buljko, a deputy district attorney in Colorado, filed a motion in the first case requesting the court to revoke the $6,000 bond and issue a warrant for Margheim’s arrest so he could address the state’s motion to revoke the bond. Buljko said in a sworn statement that Margheim “failed to comply with the protection order” and therefore had a “new offense.” However, Margheim had no “new” offense since posting the $6,000 bond. Thus, Buljko’s motion to revoke was based on conduct that could not be “new” relative to the $6,000 bond.
On April 23, 2010, the Weld County court issued the arrest warrant based on Buljko’s inaccurate statement, and police arrested Margheim on May 7, 2010. When arrested, the policed searched Margheim and found drugs. This discovery led the Weld County prosecutors to institute a third prosecution. Margheim was then held in pre-trial detention for six months.
Before the case went to trial, Margheim moved to suppress the drug evidence. The Weld County court granted that motion after concluding that the arrest warrant lacked probable cause because of Buljko’s inaccurate statement. Soon after, the case was dismissed.
In June 2012, Margheim filed suit against Buljko in district court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for malicious prosecution in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. Margheim alleged that Buljko’s false statement in the arrest warrant application led to the issuance of the warrant, his arrest, the discovery of the drugs, the drug charge, and his prolonged pre-trial detention.
Buljko moved for summary judgment, arguing that Margheim’s claim failed as a matter of law, her actions as a prosecutor entitled her to absolute immunity, she was entitled to qualified immunity, and the Eleventh Amendment barred the claim against her in her official capacity.
The district court granted summary judgment on the official capacity claim, but denied the rest of Buljko’s motion. As such, Buljko filed an interlocutory appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit to reverse the district court’s summary judgment order denying her absolute and qualified immunity.
When a defendant moves for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity, the court of appeals reviews the district court’s denial of that motion de novo. The court must grant qualified immunity unless the plaintiff can show that a reasonable jury could find facts that supports a violation of a constitutional right which was clearly established at the time of the defendant’s conduct.
As we recently detailed, the Supreme Court held in Manuel v. City of Joliet, 137 S. Ct. 911 (2017), that § 1983 can support a Fourth Amendment claim concerning pre-trial detention even after the institution of “legal process.” Although the Supreme Court has not addressed whether a § 1983 malicious prosecution claim can be used to enforce Fourth Amendment rights, the Tenth Circuit has recognized that prior to trial, the relevant constitutional underpinning for a claim of malicious prosecution under § 1983 must be the Fourth Amendment’s right to be free from unreasonable seizures.
The court of appeals noted that whether a malicious prosecution claim for pre-trial detention can be brought depends on the initiation of legal process. Unreasonable seizures imposed with legal process precipitate Fourth Amendment malicious-prosecution claims. There are five elements for a Fourth Amendment malicious prosecution claim under § 1983: the defendant caused the plaintiff’s continued confinement or prosecution; the original action terminated in favor of the plaintiff; no probable cause supported the original arrest, continued confinement, or prosecution; the defendant acted with malice; and the plaintiff sustained damages. Here, the court of appeals clarified that Margheim’s claim was based on his prosecution in the third case concerning the drug charges.
On appeal, Buljko made a new argument that the dismissal of the third case was not “favorable” because it did not indicate Margheim was innocent of the drug charges. Margheim contended that Buljko forfeited this argument by failing to raise it in district court. However, the court used its discretion to raise and decide this issue sua sponte.
The court found that dismissal of the case in question was not a favorable termination for malicious prosecution. To count as favorable, the termination must indicate the innocence of the accused. Margheim won a suppression motion to exclude the drug evidence. The prosecutor, who lacked this evidence, dismissed the case. Because dismissal based on the suppression of evidence on “technical” grounds do not have relation to the evidence’s trustworthiness, the court of appeals determined that such a dismissal is not “favorable” to support a malicious prosecution claim. As a result, the court found that Margheim had not established a constitutional violation and surmount the first part of his burden to overcome qualified immunity.
Read the full case: Margheim v. Buljko
This case law update was written by Michael J. Sgarlat, associate attorney, Shaw Bransford & Roth, PC.
For thirty years, Shaw Bransford & Roth P.C. has provided superior representation on a wide range of federal employment law issues, from representing federal employees nationwide in administrative investigations, disciplinary and performance actions, and Bivens lawsuits, to handling security clearance adjudications and employment discrimination cases.
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