Malicious prosecution lawsuits are particularly hard fought and personal for criminal suspects and police officers alike. Often a criminal suspect who has had his conviction reversed will sue the officers and prosecutors involved in his prosecution, alleging that they acted wrongfully or maliciously in pursuant of a conviction. In a recent decision in Beaman v. Freesmeyer, 2017 IL App (4th) 160527, the Illinois Fourth District Appellate Court clarified when police officers can be liable for such claims.
Alan Beaman was convicted of the 1993 murder of his ex-girlfriend, Jennifer Lockmiller. During the police investigation, several of Lockmiller’s ex-boyfriends and her drug-dealer were questioned by police. Following the Illinois Supreme Court’s 2008 decision to overturn his conviction, Beaman obtained a certificate of innocence and pardon from the governor. He then filed his federal civil rights suit. Beaman alleged that the police focused their investigation on him from the start, ignoring other possible suspects and continued to fixate on him despite the lack of evidence placing him at the scene. Beaman claimed that a detective doctored time trials to refute his alibi, withheld exculpatory evidence concerning another suspect in violation of Brady v. Maryland, and failed to disclose that suspect’s incomplete polygraph to the state’s attorney. Beaman had lost his federal case against the prosecutors based on absolute and qualified immunity and his claims against the officers when the federal appellate court held that the police officers’ conduct did not rise to the level of a conspiracy to falsify or withhold evidence.
Beaman then filed state law claims against the officers for malicious prosecution, civil conspiracy, and related claims. The Trial Court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants and the Appellate Court affirmed. The Appellate Court noted that a plaintiff alleging malicious prosecution must show that the defendant played a significant role in commencing or continuing the criminal proceedings. Thus, when a malicious prosecution claim is made against a police officer, rather than a prosecutor, the plaintiff must show a causal link between the officer’s conduct and the prosecutor’s decision to prosecute. The Court held that police officers should not be exposed to malicious prosecution claims simply because a prosecutor makes a mistaken decision to pursue a conviction. Rather, a plaintiff must show that a police officer “usurped” the prosecutor’s decision-making role, through undue influence or knowing misstatements and falsifications upon which the prosecutor relied.
Turning to the facts in Beaman’s case, the Appellate Court found that the prosecutors made the decision to prosecute Beaman without any undue influence and that Beaman was unable to show that the detectives falsified evidence. Rather, the detective’s efforts to show that Beaman could have committed the murder was “the type of behavior that will be present in every criminal prosecution.” The Appellate Court observed that the prosecutors knew about alternate suspects, and, thus, the police cannot be held liable for the prosecutor’s decision to pursue only Beaman. As to the withheld evidence, the Court held that the incomplete and inadmissible polygraph test from one of the alternative suspects was not material exculpatory evidence and that the detective’s failure to share it with the state’s attorney was insufficient to show undue pressure on the prosecutors proceeding with the case.