from the words-are-like-moats-or-barricades-or-something dept
A case involving a bogus arrest stemming from a citizen’s attempt to record officers has resulted in the denial of qualified immunity to the officers involved. The Eighth Circuit Appeals Court upheld the lower court’s decision on both First and Fourth Amendment issues.
Plaintiff Brian Hoyland was awakened by the sound of police activity in his front yard. Opening his door, he found officers trying to arrest his wife, who was the passenger in a car suspected of being involved in reported drag racing. This is what Hoyland did from 30-40 feet away, ultimately resulting in him being arrested for obstruction. From the opinion [PDF]:
Out of concern for their safety, Hoyland moved his children to the back of the house and retrieved a cell phone to record the incident outside. He intended to remain inside but changed his mind when he believed he heard the officers yell “shoot” or “shooting.” He proceeded to switch the porch light on, open his front door, and hold his phone, which was recording, out in front of him.
And this is the reaction he got:
Within seconds, an officer shouted, “Drop the camera!” McMenomy yelled at Hoyland to go back inside the house. Hoyland remained where he stood and began screaming at the officers. He shouted, “You are in my yard!” and “What is this, a DWI stop, and you guys are doing this? Are you kidding me?” Hoyland also yelled that his wife was handicapped and demanded that the officers do their jobs “the right way.” McMenomy again ordered Hoyland to “stay inside.” Immediately following this command, with Hoyland remaining in the doorway, “the arrest decision was made” by McMenomy who shouted “you are under arrest,” and ordered Hoyland to raise his hands. About thirty seconds of time elapsed between Hoyland’s emergence from his house into the doorway and McMenomy’s pronouncement that he was under arrest. Hoyland did not resist, raised his hands and laid down on the ground, following the instructions given by the officers. He was taken into custody by McMenomy and Cho without incident.
Since the confrontation was recorded, there is little room for variances between Hoyland and the officers’ testimony. As the court sees it, there is no question Hoyland did nothing even remotely approaching “obstruction.”
Throughout this encounter, Hoyland never left the area around his front door, failing to ever come closer than 30-40 feet from the officers. He never told his wife or Illetschko to disobey the officers’ commands. He never ran away or resisted the officers as he himself was arrested. Finally, he never physically intervened, and never attempted to physically intervene, in the arrest of anyone.
The local prosecutor found the charge baseless. The prosecutor stated it was clear Hoyland came out to inform officers of his wife’s disability while recording the event. At best, Hoyland’s actions were nothing more than a “fleeting interruption.” The Appeals Court comes to the same conclusion.
Having failed with the “it was obstruction” argument, the officers attempted to portray Holyand’s arrest as a necessity for officer safety. The court finds this no more convincing.
Any fear of danger the officers felt due to Hoyland’s presence cannot justify an arrest for obstruction. McMenomy asserts that his mind raced in fear of an ambush when Hoyland emerged from the house. This fear, according to the officers, made Hoyland’s arrest reasonable after he refused to go back inside his home. But the officers are mistaken. However reasonable the command for Hoyland to go back inside may have been, his refusal to do so did not constitute obstruction. As Minnesota law makes abundantly clear, obstruction must be either physical obstruction or verbal conduct, such as fighting words, that has the effect of physically obstructing officers in the performance of their duties. Nowhere in Minnesota law does mere physical presence at a distance constitute obstruction. So arresting Hoyland for obstruction due to his continued presence in his doorway was unreasonable under state law.
Even when we consider his verbal conduct, no reasonable officer could construe his shouting as “physically obstructing or interfering” in the officers’ performance of their duties. See Krawsky, 426 N.W.2d at 877. Admittedly, he was shouting criticisms at the officers. But “[i]n a democracy, public officials have no general privilege to avoid publicity and embarrassment by preventing public scrutiny of their actions.” See Walker v. City of Pine Bluff, 414 F.3d 989, 992 (8th Cir. 2005). And none of Hoyland’s comments could be reasonably interpreted as rising above scrutiny to create a threat or a danger to police or to constitute obstruction.
This allows Hoyland to continue pursuing his Fourth Amendment claim. The court moves on to the First Amendment. Again, the officers argued there was no stifling of Hoyland’s First Amendment rights because a) he was obstructing officers, and b) even if he wasn’t, he had no Constitutional right to record a traffic stop. The court spends barely any time discussing the officers’ obstruction bullshit. Instead, it concentrates on the officers’ misguided assertions, which are backed by a previous court decision that’s not nearly as helpful as the officers believe it is.
[T]he officers argue that, under Colten v. Kentucky, Hoyland “had no constitutional right to observe a [felony traffic stop] or to engage the [arresting] officer[s] in conversation at that time.”
But the officers’ reliance on Colten is misplaced for three reasons. First, the location of the traffic stop in Colten—a busy highway—implicated important concerns of public safety. Here, the arrest took place in a residential area with no other vehicles or persons around. And Hoyland was not standing on the side of a highway observing a traffic stop, but rather standing in the doorway of his own home trying to tell the officers that his wife was handicapped…
Here, Hoyland is not challenging the constitutionality of a statute; he is bringing a § 1983 claim against the officers for retaliating against him for exercising his First Amendment rights. Colten, on the other hand, was simply “refusing to move on after being directed to do so . . . without more.”
[L]ater Supreme Court cases make it clear that the First Amendment protects verbal criticism directed at police officers. See, e.g., Hill, 482 U.S. at 461. “The freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principle characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state.” Id. at 462-63. Thus Hoyland’s communications were protected activity.
The court goes on to point out Hoyland has a possibly legitimate argument the arrest was made to prevent him from exercising his First Amendment rights.
McMenomy’s deposition testimony clearly shows that the arrest decision was not made after Hoyland had ignored the initial order to go back inside. It was only after Hoyland had stood in the doorway shouting criticisms and messages about his wife’s physical disability that the arrest decision was made… The arrest decision was not made when Hoyland first disobeyed an order, but only after he had begun exercising his First Amendment rights.
Because the charge was bogus and the officers had no probable cause for Hoyland’s arrest, both his Constitutional claims will have to be faced by the government defendants. As the court concludes, immunity is a privilege, not a right, and should be treated as such by courts and those seeking to avail themselves of it.
Police officers have a tough job. They must confront dangerous situations and make difficult decisions in short time frames. This is why we offer the protection of qualified immunity—to insulate officers from the constant threat of litigation while serving and safeguarding their fellow citizens. But to receive that protection, we must find as a matter of law that the officers acted within the confines of the Constitution. They must avoid arresting persons without at least arguable probable cause. They must not take adverse actions against persons for exercising their First Amendment rights. Looking at the facts of this case, we cannot hold as a matter of law that the officers acted constitutionally.
The court doesn’t go so far as to establish a right to record police, but it does offer up enough precedential cases to make any arguments to the contrary unlikely to find sympathy with the judges. As for Hoyland, he at least has a chance to make his case at the lower level and receive some sort of compensation for an interaction with officers that began with them ordering him to stop filming and ended in a bogus arrest.