False Imprisonment and Malicious Prosecution: Where the Lines are Drawn for Victims and Witnesses
The South Carolina Supreme Court recently addressed the role of a victim or witness in circumstances giving rise to claims for false imprisonment and malicious prosecution, and the consequences thereof, in the matter of Huffman v. Sunshine Recycling, LLC and Aiken Electric Cooperative, Inc., 2019 WL 1372359 (March 27, 2019).
A substantial amount of copper and aluminum wire was stolen from Aiken. Following the theft, Aiken checked with local recyclers, as was its ordinary practice. Its pursuit led to Sunshine the morning following the theft. Sunshine allowed Aiken to examine its metal drop off area where Aiken identified the stolen metals. When questioned, a Sunshine employee indicated a woman had recently sold such materials, without expanding on others who had recently visited the recycling center. Ultimately, Huffman, a white woman driving a red truck, was identified as a suspect, despite Aiken’s initial position that its materials were stolen by a black man driving a white truck. Subsequently, armed with the limited information provided by Sunshine, local law enforcement began an investigation in which it identified Huffman as the suspect. During the course of the investigation, Sunshine cooperated, providing copies of Huffman’s invoice, receipt, driver’s license and ultimately a copy of a surveillance video.
Following the initiation of the investigation, Aiken repeatedly contacted law enforcement officials inquiring as to the progress of the case and questioning whether an arrest had been made. A warrant was issued for Huffman, who voluntarily surrendered to the police. She admitted she sold metal to Sunshine on the day in question but explained it was not stolen. Rather, it was taken from property that belonged to her. Huffman was arrested, handcuffed and required to don a prison jumpsuit. She was not allowed to call her home to check on her children and was forced to appear at her bond hearing in handcuffs and shackles.
More than two weeks after the theft from Aiken, law enforcement viewed the video provided by Sunshine that revealed Huffman removing copper wiring, resembling that taken from Aiken, from her red truck along with aluminum siding, not aluminum wiring. The video also revealed a black male in a white truck, arriving at Sunshine after Huffman, and unloading large quantities of copper and aluminum from his truck. At that point, law enforcement advised Sunshine, which had not reviewed the video, there was insufficient evidence to continue the charges against Huffman. Days later, the male suspect was identified and pled guilty.
Huffman filed suit alleging false imprisonment and malicious prosecution against the investigating authorities, Aiken and Sunshine. The law enforcement entity resolved the case against it; Aiken and Sunshine both filed motions for summary judgment that were granted by the trial court. Huffman appealed and the court of appeals reversed. The case came before the Supreme Court on writs of certiorari on behalf of both Aiken and Sunshine. Following careful examination of the facts and critical analysis of earlier authority, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals as to Sunshine and affirmed as to Aiken.
Looking first to false imprisonment – it results when an individual is deprived of his or her freedom without lawful justification. In order to establish a cause of action for false imprisonment, one must provide evidence that the defendant restrained him and the restraint was intentional and unlawful. South Carolina law has long recognized that a private individual may encounter potential liability for the false imprisonment of another. The consequences of false imprisonment are not limited to whomever unlawfully wrongfully restrains another, but are equally extended to any individual who may cause, instigate or procure an unlawful arrest.
In reaching its decision as to Sunshine, the Court of Appeals correctly reminded that one who induces, directs or commands an unlawful arrest is liable for false imprisonment. Finding, however, that Sunshine’s failure to conduct its own investigation and thereby verify the information it provided to law enforcement was actionable, effectively created a new duty – one that requires a witness to perform its own investigation and analysis of evidence akin to that required of law enforcement. Expressly rejecting this newly created duty on public policy grounds, the Supreme Court found such an obligation would improperly subject witnesses and victims, who act in good faith in their cooperation with law enforcement, to potential liability. In further support of its holding, the Supreme Court articulated that punishment of an individual who mistakenly identifies a suspect or innocently provides erroneous information in an investigation serves no purpose.
Turning to the cause of action for malicious prosecution, the court reiterated a plaintiff must show the institution or continuation of legal proceedings by or at the insistence of the defendant that are terminated in plaintiff’s favor. There must be malice in the institution of the proceedings, lack of probable cause and resulting injury to plaintiff. In further refinement, the Supreme Court also reminded malice does not require revenge but may be gleaned from a lack of sufficient caution or a disregard of the consequences. Here, Huffman failed to present even a scintilla of evidence that Sunshine instituted the proceedings against her or that such proceedings were at the instance of Sunshine.
Aiken’s argument in support of its motion for summary judgment was on distinguishable grounds, including the Victims’ Bill of Rights. The Supreme Court found there is no precedent to support the argument that that law provides a defense to victims accused of false imprisonment or malicious prosecution. Aiken also argued, unsuccessfully, that the investigating officers’ testimony that Aiken imposed a sense of urgency on the investigation and arrest of Huffman constituted improper expert testimony. The court likewise rejected that argument, finding the officers’ testimony was based on their perceptions of their dealings with Aiken and did not require special knowledge, skill or training and thus did not cross into the scope of expert testimony.
The Huffman court provides valuable guidance to those who find themselves in the unfortunate position of victim and those who are witnesses to facts that result in claims of false imprisonment and/or malicious prosecution. This opinion establishes that victims or witnesses who act in good faith, absent any malice or lack of regard for consequences, enjoy insulation from civil liability.
 See Wingate v. Postal Tel. & Cable Co., 30 S.E.2d 307 (1944).
Cheryl D. Shoun is a trial attorney and certified mediator whose experience includes construction law, insurance defense, personal injury defense, employment litigation and medical malpractice. As a frequent writer, she serves as editor for Nexsen Pruet's TIPS: Torts, Insurance and Products Blog.
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