In reviewing orders entered on motions for summary judgment, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit applies the same standard as a district court, and thus determines whether there was any genuine dispute as to any material fact. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). When defendants move for summary judgment, they bear the burden to show that the plaintiff has failed to establish an essential element of his claim. A court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and give that party the benefit of all reasonable inferences, which must flow directly from admissible evidence.
Plaintiff-Appellant, Byron Halsey, a young man with limited education, learned that the two small children for whom he had been caring had been tortured and murdered. He wanted to help in the investigation of these heinous crimes but found himself isolated in a police interview room, accused of the murders, and confronted with false incriminating evidence. For a time he maintained his innocence, but, after being interrogated for a period extending over several days, and in a state of great fear, he signed a document purporting to be his confession to the crimes. Subsequently, he was charged, indicted, convicted, and sentenced to prison for two life terms. But his "confession" contained details that the investigators must have inserted because Halsey could not have known them. And the real killer, though he had a record of sexual assaults, was known to the police, and was an obvious potential suspect as he lived in an apartment next to the one that Halsey, the children, and their mother occupied, avoided arrest despite nervously asking the investigating detectives whether he would be "locked up." Finally, after 22 years, the State of New Jersey released Halsey from prison because it had been established beyond all doubt that he had not committed the offenses.
After his release, Halsey filed this civil action with supplemental state-law claims alleging that state actors and entities involved in his prosecution had violated his constitutional rights. The defendants included defendants-appellees Frank Pfeiffer and Raymond Lynch, the two investigating police officers who Halsey claims fabricated the oral confession that led to the prosecutor filing charges against him, maliciously prosecuted him, and coerced him into signing the fabricated confession, which was the critical evidence at his criminal trial. On appellees' motions for summary judgment, the District Court entered judgment in their favor on all three claims on February 21, 2013, because the Court believed that they had qualified immunity from Halsey's claims. Hasley filed this appeal.
Did the District Court err in granting Pfeiffer et al.’s motion for summary judgment?
The Court reversed and remanded the case to the District Court for further proceedings. First, The Court reaffirmed what has been apparent for decades to all reasonable police officers: a police officer who fabricates evidence against a criminal defendant to obtain his conviction violates the defendant's constitutional right to due process of law. Second, the Court reinstated Halsey's malicious prosecution claim, principally because the prosecutor instrumental in the initiation of the criminal case against Halsey has acknowledged that the false confession that appellees claimed they obtained from Halsey contributed to the prosecutor's decision to charge Halsey, and for that reason the Court did not treat the decision to prosecute as an intervening act absolving appellees from liability. Moreover, without that false confession, there would not have been direct evidence linking Halsey to the crimes so that the prosecutor would not have had cause to prosecute Halsey. Therefore, the District Court should not have held on the motions for summary judgment that appellees had a probable cause defense to Halsey's malicious prosecution claim. Third, the Court concluded that because the evidence was sufficient for a rational jury to find that appellees, who had interrogated Halsey for many hours, had coerced him into signing the false confession, the District Court should not have granted appellees a summary judgment on Halsey's coercion claim.