Charges against the main suspect in the ricin-poisoned letters case were dropped on Tuesday, with authorities stating that the investigation has revealed new information.
The previously accused Paul Kevin Curtis, 45, of Corinth, Mississippi, was freed from custody hours before the charges were officially dropped, the Associated Press reports. Investigators are continuing to search for the real culprit.
When someone like Curtis is accused and then cleared by law enforcement in such a high-profile case, there are often legal options to pursue. These can potentially include:
- False arrest. Curtis could try to sue law-enforcement agents for false arrest under 42 U.S.C. 1983 ("Section 1983"), the code which provides civil damages when the government deprives an individual of his constitutional rights.
But here's the catch: While any legal arrest must be supported by probable cause, that can often be a relatively low standard. The officers involved in the ricin case can likely avoid being sued for false arrest under Section 1983 if they had a reasonable belief that the evidence supporting probable cause was true.
- Malicious prosecution. Curtis could also try to sue under Section 1983 for malicious prosecution, an action claiming that a government officer proceeded with charges without probable cause and with malice. There are four elements to prove in a malicious prosecution case:
- A police officer commenced the criminal proceeding,
- The proceeding ended in favor of the accused,
- No probable cause existed, and
- The charges were brought because of malice.
As with false arrest, a wrongly accused suspect has to prove that the government officer had no reasonable belief that probable cause existed to bring the charges. Malice would also be very difficult to prove in the ricin case, unless there is some damning evidence that prosecutors told others that they were charging Curtis in order to hurt him.
- Suing the media for libel. Given the reckless disregard for truth in certain media outlets, it seems very likely that Curtis and others like him could sue for libel for insinuating that he was the poison penman.
This wouldn't be the first time a news organization settled with someone falsely accused. You may recall that in 1996, Richard Jewell was falsely accused of setting off a bomb at the Atlanta Olympics. Jewell sued several news outlets for libel and then settled out of court.
- Charges Dropped Against Ricin-Letter Suspect as Cops Search New Suspect (ABC News)
- When Can I Sue Police for False Arrest? (FindLaw's Injured)
- John Travolta's Attorney Threatens Accuser with Malicious Prosecution (FindLaw's Celebrity Justice)
- Do You Know How Slander, Libel and Defamation are Different? (FindLaw's Injured)