Police, The Fourth Amendment, Qualified Immunity

Can a grand jury indictment defeat a later civil claim for false arrest?

with 4 comments

In the wake of the Saylor, Brown and Garner grand juries (and others), there has been a fair amount of criticism of the grand jury process. Of course, one criticism is that grand juries are too reluctant to indict police officers. Another criticism is that grand juries are too eager to indict non-police officers (and other parties not particularly beloved of prosecutors). This post relates to grand jury eagerness to indict in most cases.

When the police officer arrests somebody that she shouldn’t have arrested, or, at least, arguably shouldn’t have arrested, then it is understood that the arrestee might later sue “civilly” for false arrest (federal and/or state varieties). However, it is understood that if the arrestee is convicted of the crime for which she was arrested, then the arrestee will lose the civil suit because the criminal court has definitively determined that the arrestee did the crime. This is a rough description of “Heck doctrine,” following the Supreme Court case of Heck v. Humphrey. All of this seems pretty reasonable, at least to me.

What this post is about is situations where there is a grand jury indictment of the arrestee, but no criminal conviction follows. Can the grand jury indictment be used to prove, or at least help prove, that there was probable cause for an arrest and that a false arrest was not made by the police officer? On a closely related note, can the grand jury indictment help support qualified immunity in favor of the police officer on the false arrest claim?

Case: FIALDINI v. Cote, Court of Appeals, 4th Circuit 2014 (unpublished)


[W]e have held that, “an indictment, `fair upon its face,’ returned by a `properly constituted grand jury,’ conclusively determines the existence of probable cause.” . . . Appellants argue that the indictment cannot support a finding of probable cause because [Plaintiff] was not permitted to present evidence before the grand jury, . . . suggesting thereby that had he been allowed to do so, he would have defeated the prosecutor’s showing that there was probable cause for his arrest. We reject this contention.

Criticism: This gives prosecutors a powerful incentive to get indictments in cases of questionable arrests, especially when the prosecutor is one of the strongly “pro-police” variety. If, as some contend, the grand jury can be controlled by the prosecutor, so that the grand jury will “rubberstamp” any indictments the prosecutor truly wants, then it is difficult to see why the resulting indictment would be admissible as evidence in a later civil suit by the arrestee for false arrest.

ON EDIT: In response to the comments, I am not criticizing prosecutors who get an indictment and then try the case in the criminal court. Rather, I am criticizing any prosecutors who get an indictment, never intending to try the case, but, rather, merely to bolster the defense in an actual, or potential, civil suit by the subject of a questionable arrest.

Written by Burgers Allday

December 11, 2014 at 6:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. is that dependent on the criminal defendant (later civil plaintiff) having had an opportun ity to challenge the indictment?

    Bill O

    December 17, 2014 at 4:58 pm

  2. As I read the opinion, the court is saying that the plaintiff did not have a chance to challenge the indictment, but the indictment is still evidence of probable cause. My guess is that, if the plaintiff did have the opportunity to challenge the indictment, then the indictment would be collaterally estop plaintiff’s suit (see Humphrey v. Heck) rather than merely being evidence unfavorable to plaintiff. Just a guess, though, that.

    Burgers Allday

    December 17, 2014 at 5:09 pm

    • oh ok…by ‘opportunity’ i guess i meant that they legally could have, but didn’t, challenge the indictment. but i also misread the excerpt to mean that the indictment would estop or preclude the probable cause issue in the civil suit….

      that its just some evidence for the pc to arrest doesn’t seem out of line.

      btw, your blog is interesting and helpful, thanks.

      Bill O

      December 17, 2014 at 5:58 pm

  3. […] this month I aired my concern that grand juries might be abusively used by prosecutors, in some cases, to thwart civil suits […]

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