We love a good conspiracy theory. Unfortunately, it’s easy to develop a conspiracy theory, but it’s difficult to prove a civil conspiracy.
Today, we’re looking at a Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals case evaluating an appellant’s civil conspiracy claim. First, let’s start with the facts.
Two Secret Service agents staked out Kia Maxwell's Michigan home to execute an arrest warrant for her boyfriend. After detaining the boyfriend, five additional agents entered Maxwell's home and conducted a warrantless, protective search. Maxwell and the agents disagree on whether she consented to the search.
Maxwell was perturbed and sued the five officers who conducted the search, claiming they violated her Fourth Amendment rights. She also claimed that the agents conspired to violate her civil rights.
The district court dismissed Maxwell's civil conspiracy claim against three of the agents, and, after hearing the evidence at trial, granted judgment as a matter of law to the remaining agents on the civil conspiracy claim. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the agents on Maxwell's illegal entry claim, but in favor of Maxwell on her claims of unlawful search without consent, wrongful taking into custody and wrongful seizure of property.
To prevail in a civil conspiracy claim, a plaintiff must prove that two or more persons conspired for the purpose of depriving the claimant of equal protection of laws due to racial or class-based animus, and that the conspirators committed an act in furtherance of the object of that conspiracy that injured the claimant.
Here, Maxwell satisfied the third and fourth requirements -- an illegal entry and search establishes the requisite act in furtherance of a conspiracy and the requisite injury -- but she did not prove that there was an agreement between the officers or that the point of any potential agreement was to deprive her of equal protection of the law due to her race.
Maxwell insisted that circumstantial evidence supported her civil conspiracy claim, pointing to four circumstances that "establish" a race-based conspiracy: Dodd and Knight rode in the same car to Maxwell's house; they remained together during most of their time in the house; they questioned Maxwell apart from her sister (who was also in the house); and they searched the house together, with only Maxwell accompanying them.
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals' take on Maxwell's evidence: Circumstantial, yes; evidence of a race-based conspiracy, no.
There's a reason that we don't read about many successful civil conspiracy lawsuits: they're very hard to prove. Before you assert a civil conspiracy claim on your client's behalf, compare your conspiracy facts to Maxwell's and determine if your client will fare better.
- Maxwell v. Dodd (Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals)
- Sixth Circuit Affirms Warrantless Search Evidence (FindLaw's Sixth Circuit blog)
- Supreme Court Upholds Warrantless Marijuana Odor Search (FindLaw's Decided)