Appeals Court Affirms State Trooper Who Responded To An F-Bomb With An Arrest Owes $15k In Legal Fees
from the I-told-you-once-and-I-told-you-twice/But-you-never-listen-to-my-advice dept
By now, there’s enough case law in place that law enforcement officers should definitely know it’s a violation of rights to arrest someone for momentarily offending them. Even without the case law, these officers know it’s not okay to bust people for flipping them off or yelling expletives in their general direction. That’s why those that do, buttress their rights violations with absurd claims that doing these things “disturbs the peace” or violates any other “contempt of cop” law that can be deliberately misread to criminalize hurting a cop’s feelings.
But cops persist in engaging in retaliatory acts that target protected speech. And the most protected speech of all is criticism of the government, even if it’s nothing more than a fleeting expletive or the bird being delivered by the passenger of a passing car.
This refusal to let bygones be bygones when the moving vehicle has moved on is going to cost taxpayers some money. A case already decided by the Eighth Circuit Appeals Court in favor of the citizen setting up Arkansas State Trooper Lagarian Cross with the F-bomb now has a much more expensive price tag.
The original 2019 decision refused to grant Trooper Cross qualified immunity. It also awarded the swear Eric Thurairajah nominal damages: one US dollar. Here’s a brief rundown of the facts behind the first visit to the Appeals Court, as well as setting the stage for the Eighth Circuit’s second pass.
In 2015, Trooper Cross was performing a routine traffic stop on a van pulled to the shoulder of a busy five-lane highway in Fort Smith, Arkansas. From 50 feet away, Trooper Cross heard Thurairajah, who was driving by, yell “f**k you!” out of his car window. The van’s occupants were a mother and her two young children. Thurairajah was driving at about 35 miles-per-hour on the far lane of the road moving in the opposite direction. Trooper Cross observed the two children in the van react to the yell. Trooper Cross ended the traffic stop of the van and pursued Thurairajah, stopped him, and arrested him, citing Arkansas’s disorderly conduct law. Trooper Cross believed the shout constituted “unreasonable or excessive noise” under the law. Ark. Code Ann. § 5-71-207(a)(2).
Thurairajah spent several hours in jail but then was released and all charges against him were dropped. He filed a § 1983 lawsuit against Trooper Cross alleging the trooper violated his First Amendment right to be free from retaliation and his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure. Trooper Cross moved for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. The district court denied qualified immunity on both claims after concluding Trooper Cross’s arrest violated Thurairajah’s clearly established constitutional rights.
“Clearly established.” No qualified immunity. The trooper’s appeal netted him nothing but an affirmation of both the lower court’s decision and the clear establishment of the right he had violated.
The second pass by the appeals court doesn’t bother affirming anything that hasn’t already been said twice. But it does help Trooper Cross dig himself an even more expensive hole with his inability to accept his loss gracefully. From the decision [PDF]:
The court sua sponte entered an order in limine precluding Thurairajah from presenting a punitive-damages argument to the jury. At trial, the jury returned a verdict finding that Trooper Cross’s actions were not the proximate cause of Thurairajah’s damages and awarded him nothing. The district court subsequently awarded nominal damages of $1.00 to Thurairajah. Thurairajah moved for a new trial, alleging that defense counsel acted inappropriately and that the district court should not have admitted evidence of a collateral source at trial. The district court denied the motion. Thurairajah moved for attorney’s fees, and the district court awarded attorney’s fees of $15,100.00.
Trooper Cross appealed this decision. He needn’t have bothered. The fees award is affirmed, meaning whoever’s indemnifying the state trooper will be paying $15,000 in legal fees to the plaintiff.
And the concurrence says the Eighth Circuit may have misread state law to give the trooper a pass on the plaintiff’s state law claims. According to Arkansas law, no immunity may be awarded if the officer’s violation of someone’s rights is “malicious.” The Eighth Circuit says nothing on the record supports the claim Trooper Cross’s arrest was a “conscious violation of the law.” The concurrence says that take is wrong. There’s plenty on the record suggesting otherwise.
Thurairajah described the arrest as “hostile,” “violent,” and “personal.” He testified that Trooper Cross yelled at him to get out of the car, walked towards him “fast,” and asked him if he “thought that s**t was cute.” Thurairajah also testified that Trooper Cross was “aggressively moving [him] around” during the arrest, was “very aggressive through all the searches [of him],” and “was obviously very angry.” At one point, Trooper Cross told Thurairajah, “You can’t talk to cops like that; you can’t yell F-you to a cop.” And at the jail later, Thurairajah heard Trooper Cross tell someone, “This kid said ‘F**k you’ to a cop; so I thought I would bring him in.” Viewing these facts in Thurairajah’s favor, a jury could reasonably conclude that Trooper Cross arrested Thurairajah not because he believed Thurairajah engaged in disorderly conduct, but because he was angered by the profanity Thurairajah directed at him. And given that it was clearly established at the time that “[c]riticism of law enforcement officers, even with profanity, is protected speech,” Thurairajah v. City of Fort Smith, 925 F.3d 979, 985 (8th Cir. 2019) (first citing City of Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451, 461 (1987); and then citing Hoyland v. McMenomy, 869 F.3d 644 (8th Cir. 2017)), a jury could conclude that Trooper Cross consciously violated the law or arrested Thurairajah “without just cause or excuse, [and] with an intent to inflict injury,” Fuqua, 20 S.W.3d at 391 (quoting Malice, Black’s Law Dictionary (6th ed. 1990)).
But that’s the concurrence and Trooper Cross is lucky to escape only $15k lighter in the (collective, taxpayer-funded) wallet.
Almost everywhere in this country it’s clearly established that expletives and middle fingers are protected speech, even when they target police officers. Every officer that engages in a retaliatory arrest is only creating more precedent that separates them from their dearly beloved qualified immunity. Smart cops don’t blow judicial goodwill on foul-mouthed randos. But there appears to be more than enough dumb cops willing to indulge their worst impulses, ensuring an unfortunately steady stream of increasingly redundant federal court decisions.