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Court says malicious prosecution case can proceed

Scott Lauck//August 24, 2020

Court says malicious prosecution case can proceed

Scott Lauck//August 24, 2020

The Missouri Court of Appeals Western District granted a rare reprieve to a man who alleges he was maliciously prosecuted by Columbia police officers.

Nicholas Demanule Daniels previously lost a federal civil rights suit based on his 2013 arrest outside a popular Columbia bar. But the Western District, offering two novel interpretations of Missouri law, ruled on Aug. 18 that some of his claims involve disputed factual matters that should be resolved by a jury.

“Thank God for body cams and good facts,” said the plaintiff’s attorney, Brent Haden of Haden & Colbert in Columbia.

Brad C. Letterman of Schreimann, Rackers, & Francka in Jefferson City, an attorney for the police officers who remain defendants in the case, declined to comment.

Officers Ryan Terranova, Patrick Corcoran and Clint Sinclair were conducting a routine business check at the Fieldhouse bar when Daniels and a bouncer got into an altercation. The officers responded and, during the ensuing fight, one of the officers was punched in the face. He responded by using his Taser to shock Daniels.

Daniels subsequently was charged with trespassing, assault of a law enforcement officer and resisting arrest. A Boone County prosecutor dismissed all of the charges a few months later. Daniels then sued the officers for, among other things, malicious prosecution, arguing that they had no basis for the charges leveled at him. According to Daniels’ attorney, Daniels was at the bar lawfully, the officer’s body cameras show one officer accidentally punched another during the melee, and his client was attempting to comply with the officers’ orders when he was stunned.

As the Western District noted in its opinion, malicious prosecution suits are “not favored in the law,” so plaintiffs must strictly comply with the requisite elements of the cause of action. Among other things, a plaintiff must show that the prosecution terminated in his favor. In Daniels’ case, the prosecutor entered a nolle prosequi — a formal entry on the record indicating that the case won’t proceed. The statute of limitations on the alleged offenses later expired.

The Western District said the running of the statute of limitations after the formal dismissal wasn’t determinative, but it was “a factor that may be considered in determining whether the prosecutor intended to abandon the prosecution.”

“The key issue is the prosecutor’s intent,” Judge Karen King Mitchell wrote for the court.

Mitchell pointed to the prosecutor’s deposition testimony, where the prosecutor agreed that she could have refiled the charges within the statute of limitations but that, absent additional information, she never intended to do so.

“The prosecutor’s intent is a fact issue, which the parties dispute, and there is testimony to support both interpretations,” Mitchell wrote. Judges Thomas H. Newton and Anthony Rex Gabbert concurred.

Even with that ruling, Daniels’ suit would have fallen apart if he couldn’t show that the officers lacked probable cause to initiate the prosecution against him — and under recent federal precedent, he couldn’t.

A 2016 opinion in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, Ciesla v. Christian, interpreted Missouri law to mean that probable cause supporting a criminal charge for one crime barred a malicious prosecution claim for other charges as well. Daniels’ earlier federal suit had resulted in factual findings that the officers did have probable cause to charge Daniels with resisting arrest.

The Western District agreed that Daniels no longer could litigate the resisting arrest charge. But in a ruling of first impression, the court diverged from the 2016 federal precedent and said Daniels could proceed with his claims based on the trespassing and assault of a law enforcement officer charges. To do otherwise, Mitchell wrote, would “violate public policy.”

“Suspects could be charged with multiple offenses and be unable to assert a claim of malicious prosecution, so long as there is probable cause to prosecute on one of the offenses charged,” Mitchell wrote. She also noted that most other courts that have addressed this issue have taken the same “charge-specific” approach.

Haden argued that the city’s argument would have allowed an officer to maliciously charge someone with murder and be immune from suit if the defendant properly had been charged with speeding.

“I think any crime under their argument would be enough for them to say, ‘It’s not actionable, even if we rubbed our hands together and maliciously conspired to charge you with more heinous crimes and wreck your life,’” he said. “There’s always a way for them to put you on the hook for something. Thankfully, the court went the right way on that.”

The case is Daniels v. Terranova et al., WD82785.

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