EDVA: Prosecutor, officer face malicious-prosecution claims

Rebecca M. Lightle//August 3, 2018

EDVA: Prosecutor, officer face malicious-prosecution claims

Rebecca M. Lightle//August 3, 2018

An unsuccessful candidate for county sheriff sufficiently stated claims for malicious prosecution by a commonwealth’s attorney and a state police officer. The plaintiff said they conspired to prosecute him for election fraud with no evidence to support the charge.


In 2014, Plaintiff Stephen King was charged with trespassing. He sought testimony on his behalf by Greensville deputy sheriffs, but Defendant and Commonwealth’s Attorney Patricia Watson allegedly told King the deputies were tied up in court on other matters. King later discovered the witnesses actually were available. He then filed a bar complaint against Watson on grounds that she lied to him. Meanwhile, he was acquitted in the trespass case.

In 2015, King decided to run for sheriff of Greensville County. Watson’s cousin, Steve Allen, allegedly complained to her that King had committed election fraud by lying about having lived in Virginia for at least one year. Watson forwarded the complaint to the Virginia State Police. Special Agent Kimberly Darden investigated and found little evidence of wrongdoing, but she obtained a warrant anyway. A jury acquitted King of election fraud, although he lost the election.

King initiated this action based on Watson, Allen, and Darden’s dastardly conspiracy against him. The Defendants have moved to dismiss.

§ 1983 false arrest

King sues Watson and Darden under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violating his Fourth Amendment rights, under theories of false arrest and false imprisonment. As a Commonwealth’s Attorney and a state police officer investigating a potential crime, both Defendants acted under color of state law.

King does not claim that he was arrested without a warrant; he attaches the warrant to the complaint and does not challenge its facial validity. Thus, he fails to adequately plead a state-law claim for false imprisonment. The court has scrutinized the warrant and finds no errors, but grants King leave to file an amended complaint showing its facial invalidity.

§ 1983 malicious prosecution

King alleges that Watson misled Darden into believing that Allen’s complaint had merit and, further, that Darden received a warrant by somehow misleading the magistrate, based on the utter lack of evidence to support probable cause. At this stage of litigation, these allegations satisfy the causation requirement for malicious prosecution.

The complaint also alleges that Watson knew probable cause didn’t exist, and she pursued King based on a personal grudge. Next, Darden’s investigation provided no evidence of wrongdoing, and Allen even admitted he had no facts to support his assertions about King’s residence. Such scant information would not lead a reasonable officer to believe she had probable cause to seek a warrant for election fraud. Thus, King adequately pleads that the Defendants seized him pursuant to legal process unsupported by probable cause.

Accordingly, the court will not dismiss King’s § 1983 malicious-prosecution claims.

State-law malicious prosecution

King similarly states a plausible malicious-prosecution claim against both Watson and Darden under Virginia law, based on the allegations in the complaint.

First, King’s prosecution was instituted with the Defendants’ cooperation. King says that Watson gave false information to the Virginia State Police and asked them to investigate him, allegedly based on the past animosity between herself and King. Darden formally instituted King’s prosecution by conducting an investigation and seeking a warrant. Although the complaint is pretty flimsy, one could infer that Darden knew about Watson’s ill motives and joined in her attempt to damage King.

Second, the prosecution lacked probable cause. Watson allegedly knew that King had lived in Virginia for the requisite time, yet passed along the complaint out of spite. Darden’s investigation revealed no facts to suggest that King had broken the law.

Accordingly, the court will not dismiss King’s state-law malicious-prosecution claims.

Business conspiracy

King’s business conspiracy claims under Code §§ 18.2-499 and -500 fail against all Defendants. He does not mention what damages his business suffered or even what his business might entail. And without a basic set of facts supporting the alleged conspiracy, his statutory business conspiracy claim cannot survive.

Immunity premature

Here, King merely alleges that Watson (1) turned over a complaint to the police and asked for investigation, and (2) asked a judge to appoint a special prosecutor. On this scant record, the court cannot determine whether Watson merits the absolute immunity that protects all of a prosecutor’s actions in the charging process. Absolute immunity is an affirmative defense that Watson must prove. On a more complete record, Watson may prevail, but the court cannot conclude as much at this time.

Watson also says that, to the extent that King named her in her official capacity, the Eleventh Amendment bars his claims. But King does not clearly name Watson in her individual or official capacity. Because King does not allege that Watson acted in her official capacity as a Commonwealth’s Attorney during any part of the alleged acts, the court therefore interprets the complaint as one against Watson only in her individual capacity. Accordingly, the Eleventh Amendment does not shield her.

Motions to dismiss granted in part, denied in part.

King v. Darden, Case No. 3:17cv742, Aug. 1, 2018. EDVA at Richmond (Gibney). VLW No. 018-3-319, 13 pp.


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