An individual, who makes use of a legal process for some private, personal purpose that is beyond the scope of the process, or who knowingly participates in its use for such a purpose, is liable in damages for abuse of process[i].
A judicial officer is generally exempted from civil liability for abuse of process if:
- The jurisdiction of the officer is complete and attaches to the person and the subject matter in connection with the alleged illegal acts that are committed;
- The officer acts within the scope of his/her jurisdiction and in a judicial capacity.
However, a judicial officer can be held liable for abuse of process if the officer acts without any jurisdiction and commits the abuse while acting under the pretense of his/her official capacity[ii].
In Osbekoff v. Mallory, 188 N.W.2d 294 (Iowa 1971), an owner’s vehicle was involved in an accident which was driven by another person. The owner appeared before the mayor who was acting in his role as magistrate, to answer certain criminal charges. The mayor ordered that the possession of the owner’s vehicle will be retained by the mayor until the owner pays off certain civil debts. The owner filed an action against the mayor alleging abuse of process.
The court observed that the mayor was not judicially immune from the owner’s lawsuit. The owner’s presence in the mayor’s court to answer to a criminal charge did not give the mayor any jurisdiction to hear and determine the owner’s property rights in the vehicle.
[i] Woodring v. Jennings State Bank, 603 F. Supp. 1060 (D. Neb. 1985)
[ii] Osbekoff v. Mallory, 188 N.W.2d 294 (Iowa 1971)