Wheeler v. Nesbitt
65 U.S. 544 (1860)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Wheeler v. Nesbitt, 65 U.S. 24 How. 544 544 (1860)

Wheeler v. Nesbitt

65 U.S. (24 How.) 544

Syllabus

When the general issue is pleaded to an action on the case for a malicious criminal prosecution, the plaintiff must prove, in the first place, the fact of the prosecution, that the defendant was himself the prosecutor, or instigated the proceeding, and that it finally terminated in favor of the party accused.

He must also prove that the charge against him was unfounded, that it was made without reasonable or probable cause, and that the defendant, in making or instigating it, was actuated by malice.

Page 65 U. S. 545

Probable cause is the existence of such facts and circumstances as would excite the belief in a reasonable mind, acting on the facts within the knowledge of the prosecutor, that the person charged was guilty of the crime for which he was prosecuted.

Where the court told the jury that the want of probable cause afforded a presumption of malice, but that such presumption might be rebutted by other evidence showing that the party acted bona fide and in the honest discharge of what he believed to be his duty, it was not error in the court to add, in the same connection, that if, however, the jury find that the arrest was wanton and reckless, and that no circumstances existed to induce a reasonable and dispassionate man to believe that he was guilty of the charge preferred against him, then the jury ought to infer malice, except, perhaps, the closing paragraph is put rather strongly in favor of the plaintiff.

Whether the prosecution was or was not commenced from malicious motives was a question of fact, and it was for the jury to determine whether the inference of malice was a reasonable one from the facts assumed in the instruction; but the error, if it be one, forms no ground o� exception by the plaintiff, because it was in his favor.

As the magistrate who issued the warrant was one of the parties sued in this case, it was proper for the court below to instruct the jury that if there was probable cause for the arrest of the party, he could lawfully be detained for a reasonable time, owing to the neglect on his part to offer any satisfactory security for his appearance at the time appointed for examination.

In September, 1856, John J. Wheeler arrived at the small town of Charlotte, in Tennessee, about eight o'clock at night, in company with two Irishmen, the whole three being indifferently clad. Wheeler had four fine horses; each of the Irishmen was riding one of the horses, with a sack and blanket to sit upon instead of a saddle. The defendants in error except Trimble arrested the whole three on suspicion of having stolen the horses, and carried them before Trimble, who was a justice of the peace, and who sent them to jail for a week. At the end of that time, they procured satisfactory evidence of character, and were discharged. Wheeler then brought an action on the case for a malicious criminal prosecution. The rulings of the court below are given in the opinion of this Court.

Page 65 U. S. 546

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