Illinois Supreme Court Rejects Narrow Framing of Officer Conduct That Might Lead to Liability for Malicious Prosecution

Quoting an amicus brief submitted by prominent former prosecutors who were represented by Loevy & Loevy, the Illinois Supreme Court reversed the appellate court’s grant of summary judgment for defendants on a claim for malicious prosecution in Beaman v. Freesmeyer, No. 122654, last Thursday.

The plaintiff, Alan Beaman, had been wrongfully convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend, Jennifer Lockmiller, more than 25 years ago. Lockmiller, a 21-year-old Illinois State University student, was found dead in her apartment in Normal, Illinois on August 28, 1993. The Normal police department focused its investigation entirely on Lockmiller’s acquaintances, including her current and former boyfriends, ultimately zeroing in on Beaman. Before Beaman’s trial, Assistant State’s Attorney James Souk successfully moved to exclude any evidence of Lockmiller’s relationship with men other than her current boyfriend and Beaman, arguing the other relationships were irrelevant. But Souk had hidden evidence from defense counsel that another of Lockmiller’s ex-boyfriends, Larbi John Murray, failed to complete a polygraph exam during the murder investigation and had a criminal record that “exposed his drug and steroid use and incidents of domestic violence against a subsequent girlfriend.” Id. at 3. At trial, the State told the jury it investigated and cleared all the possible suspects except Beaman. The jury found Beaman guilty and sentenced him to 50 years imprisonment.

In 2008, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the State violated Beaman’s due process rights by hiding evidence showing Murray was a possible alternative suspect. The Court vacated Beaman’s conviction and ordered a new trial; but the State declined to prosecute Beaman, instead dismissing the charges and freeing Beaman.

Beaman’s Supreme Court appeal arose from a 2014 civil rights case he filed in Illinois state court against the City of Normal and officers involved in the murder investigation. Among other claims, Beaman alleged a count for malicious prosecution under Illinois law. To succeed on the malicious prosecution claim, Beaman was required to prove five elements, the first of which was that the defendants “commenced or continued” an original judicial proceeding against him.

The trial court granted summary judgment for defendants on the claim, reasoning that “the prosecutors who handled the case, not the defendant officers, decided to prosecute Beaman.” Id. at 6. The appellate court affirmed. Because the appellate court’s decision rested solely on its conclusion that Beaman failed to satisfy the first element of his malicious prosecution claim, on appeal, the Supreme Court considered only what a plaintiff must show to prove defendant officers “commenced or continued” a criminal case against him.

Importantly for civil rights plaintiffs, the Supreme Court soundly rejected the appellate court’s view that “Beaman was required to ‘establish that officer[s] pressured or exerted influence on the prosecutor’s decision or made knowing misstatements upon which the prosecutor relied.’” The Court likewise criticized the appellate court’s reasoning that “‘the State’s Attorney, not the police prosecutes a criminal action.’” Id. at 14 (quoting Beaman v. Freesmeyer, 2017 IL App (4th) 16057, ¶¶ 57-58 (4th Dist. 2017)).

Instead, the Supreme Court adopted the test espoused by Beaman and the amici, explaining that the trial court was required “to examine whether the defendants’ conduct or actions proximately caused the commencement or continuance of the original criminal proceeding by determining whether defendants played a significant role in Beaman’s prosecution.” Beaman, No. 122654 at 15-16. In reaching its conclusion, the Court quoted Loevy’s brief, observing: “As the former state and federal prosecutors submit in their amicus brief, liability for malicious prosecution ‘calls for a commonsense assessment’ of those persons who played a significant role in the criminal case.” Id. at 15.

The full decision is available here.

 

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