Malicious prosecution is the act of knowingly filing a civil or criminal lawsuit against an individual with no reasonable grounds, probable cause, or acting with improper purposes. In such cases, the defendant in that case may be entitled to file a lawsuit claiming malicious prosecution against a prosecutor or others who initiated the claims.
Typically, if a civil or criminal case lacks sufficient evidence to litigate, no legal action is taken. However, cases that are pursued for the sole purpose of intimidating, defaming, harassing, or injuring the other party, are considered malicious prosecution. For example, an unscrupulous prosecutor who files false charges against a political rival in order to defame that individual publicly and advance his own career. Or corporations suing small businesses to eliminate customer competition.
Civil and criminal proceedings brought with malicious intent and no probable cause generally entitles the accused to claim an intentional dignitary tort of malicious prosecution against the accusing party. A dignitary tort is an intentional tort that causes indignities to another’s reputation or honor.
How is Malicious Prosecution Determined?
In civil cases, most states allow compensation if the plaintiff – who was the defendant in the first lawsuit – can prove lack of probable cause and malicious intent for bringing the case. Some states also require the plaintiff to show they suffered “compensable injury,” due to the initial lawsuit, like the loss of a business due to defamation of character resulting from the outcome of the lawsuit, for example.
In criminal cases, any proceeding lacking probable cause may be considered malicious prosecution, regardless of whether the defendant was indicted or tried. Search warrants executed without probable cause could also be grounds for a malicious prosecution claim as well.
Successful malicious prosecution claims require:
- A legal proceeding: A civil legal proceeding is when a plaintiff who is not a government entity sues for financial damages or an injunction, though the defendant may be a government entity. Criminal cases are those in which the government can punish the defendant, such as embezzlement or homicide. If the plaintiff initiating the case believes they have legitimate reason to prosecute but find evidence during the proceedings that the case is baseless, can be guilty of malicious prosecution for continuing the proceedings for improper motives.
- Reasonable grounds: In order to bring any suit, the plaintiff must show reasonable grounds for doing so. Also referred to as probable cause, the plaintiff must be able to prove that any “reasonable” person would make the same determination that the legal action against the defendant is legitimate. In contrast, if the plaintiff pursues a case knowing the legal action is illegitimate, there is no need to prove a reasonable person would believe the same.
- Improper purpose: Generally, if lack of reasonable grounds is proven, the claim of improper purpose is essentially established. However, if the defendant was acting on the advice of counsel when bringing the initial suit, there may be no grounds for malicious prosecution for mistakenly believing the case is legitimate, even if the lawsuit has no probable cause.
- Favorable termination: In a malicious prosecution case, the plaintiff must have prevailed in the previous illegitimate suit. A claim of malicious prosecution cannot be brought if the plaintiff was convicted of the charges in a criminal proceeding or found to pay compensation in a civil proceeding.
Cases with valid improper purpose claims, but not the remaining requirements to prove malicious prosecution may have grounds for bringing an abuse of process claim instead.
Abuse of process applies when the lawsuit is determined as legitimate, however, legal documents or proceedings are used to gain results in a different manner than they were intended. For instance, using a false deposition in order to affect the outcome of the lawsuit.
Have I Been Maliciously Prosecuted?
If you successfully won the case brought against you for lack of reasonable grounds and you feel the case was filed for improper purposes, then you may have a claim for malicious prosecution. In order to determine whether you have a legitimate claim, you must consider the plaintiff’s motivation to prosecute you. Why did they bring the lawsuit against you? You need to establish whether the charges were brought mistakenly or whether the plaintiff targeted you specifically for another reason. In other words, was it the plaintiff’s intent for you to be punished for a crime or was it to defame you, seek revenge, or another unrelated action they are blaming you for?
Additionally, you will also need to determine who actually brought the charges and testified against you, and that they had malicious intent to do so, such as a relative, police officer, or former romantic partner, and what their real purpose was for bringing the lawsuit. For example, a waitress witnesses you strike another customer in a physical altercation and calls the police in order to punish you because she thinks you do not tip well, not for the assault.
Criminal cases are brought by government officials, typically prosecutors or, in Virginia, Commonwealth attorneys. State and federal laws provide immunity for prosecutors and law enforcement personnel against claims of malicious prosecution as a protection to defend against accusations of malicious prosecution. Immunity allows prosecutors to perform their duties without constantly defending themselves in malicious prosecution claims by all those who claim innocence following their conviction.
There are limits to prosecutorial immunity, however. In most jurisdictions, immunity does not extend to actions a prosecutor took outside their authority in pursuing a criminal case, such as falsifying a document in order to seek a conviction. It should be noted that proving a prosecutor engaged in malicious prosecution is extremely difficult to prove in the majority of cases.
What Damages Can I Seek Over Malicious Prosecution?
Malicious prosecution often takes a public and private toll on the individual being prosecuted and results in a multitude of injuries, such as false civil accusations or unfounded criminal charges. If proven, the accused may be entitled to compensatory or punitive damages, which are:
- Compensatory damages: This classification of damages include the actual damages directly resulting from malicious prosecution, such as pain and suffering, and quantifiable special damages, such as loss of income.
- Actual damages: Determining actual damages is based on the emotional impact of being wrongfully accused through malicious prosecution, such as isolation, confusion, or bewilderment. In criminal cases, the emotional toll can be significant, especially if the defendant was detained, jailed, or treated as a criminal. A damaged reputation, loss of future income potential, and attorney and court fees may also be claimed as actual damages as well.
The majority of states allow recovery of damages in civil suits, including Virginia, if the plaintiff can demonstrate malicious intent and probable cause. Some states, however, require proof of direct injury or interference to the plaintiff separate from the nuisance of the complaint and lawsuit, such as the loss of a business.
Virginia Beach Car Accident Lawyers at Anchor Legal Group, PLLC, Fight for Clients Who Experience Malicious Prosecution
Having a prosecutor, an individual, or a corporation aggressively pursuing a case against you by knowingly falsifying documents or ignoring lack of probable cause can be exceedingly emotional and have a lasting negative effect on your life, career, and more, even if you are found not guilty. If this has happened to you, our experienced Virginia Beach civil rights lawyers at Anchor Legal Group, PLLC can help you recover damages. Call us at 757-LAW-0000 or contact us online to schedule a consultation. Located in Virginia Beach, we serve clients throughout Chesapeake, Norfolk, Suffolk, Portsmouth, Newport News, Hampton, and Eastern Shore, Virginia. We also serve our clients throughout the United States through our network of associated attorneys.