from the a-police-state-is-a-team-effort dept
The Supreme Court has declared it’s cool with cops engaging in retaliatory arrests… just as long as they have the probable cause to do so. Given the thousands of obscure laws we’ve been cursed with by legislators, most law enforcement officers will be able to find some way to shut up someone by putting them in cuffs. (Whatever they’re wrong about can be salvaged by the good faith exception.)
In this case, plaintiff Russell Bartlett was arrested after not talking to police and telling other winter festival attendees to not talk to the police. The officer who arrested Bartlett claimed Bartlett was drunk and disorderly, hence the supposedly-justified arrest. Here’s the background, as summarized in the Supreme Court’s opinion [PDF]:
Respondent Russell Bartlett was arrested by police officers Luis Nieves and Bryce Weight for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest during “Arctic Man,” a raucous winter sports festival held in a remote part of Alaska. According to Sergeant Nieves, he was speaking with a group of attendees when a seemingly intoxicated Bartlett started shouting at them not to talk to the police. When Nieves approached him, Bartlett began yelling at the officer to leave. Rather than escalate the situation, Nieves left. Bartlett disputes that account, claiming that he was not drunk at that time and did not yell at Nieves. Minutes later, Trooper Weight says, Bartlett approached him in an aggressive manner while he was questioning a minor, stood between Weight and the teenager, and yelled with slurred speech that Weight should not speak with the minor. When Bartlett stepped toward Weight, the officer pushed him back. Nieves saw the confrontation and initiated an arrest. When Bartlett was slow to comply, the officers forced him to the ground. Bartlett denies being aggressive and claims that he was slow to comply because of a back injury. After he was handcuffed, Bartlett claims that Nieves said “bet you wish you would have talked to me now.”
In effect, Trooper Nieves was arresting Bartlett for talking about not talking to the police and, I guess, for not talking to Nieves when Bartlett was telling festival attendees to not talk to Trooper Nieves. Trooper Weight is a boxing tier I’m not familiar with.
The Ninth Circuit Appeals Court agreed with Bartlett, finding that probable cause does not excuse retaliatory arrests. The government protested, stating the opposite. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court agrees with the government insistence that retaliatory arrests are excusable with probable cause. In addition, it says that plaintiffs in these cases bear the burden of proving other people haven’t been arrested if they plan to make assertions about a law enforcement officer’s actions.
Because States today permit warrantless misdemeanor arrests for minor criminal offenses in a wide range of situations—whereas such arrests were privileged only in limited circumstances when §1983 was adopted—a narrow qualification is warranted for circumstances where officers have probable cause to make arrests, but typically exercise their discretion not to do so. An unyielding requirement to show the absence of probable cause in such cases could pose “a risk that some police officers may exploit the arrest power as a means of suppressing speech.” Lozman, 585 U. S., at ___. Thus, the no-probable-cause requirement should not apply when a plaintiff presents objective evidence that he was arrested when otherwise similarly situated individuals not engaged in the same sort of protected speech had not been.
So… bring data, I guess.
There’s a whole lot more to this opinion than the majority’s. There’s plenty of dissent. Justice Gorsuch both concurs and dissents, but gets right to the point when it comes to the legal ramifications of this ruling.
Mr. Bartlett contends that the officers’ retaliation against his First Amendment protected speech entitles him to damages under 42 U. S. C. §1983. For their part, the troopers insist that the fact they had probable cause to arrest Mr. Bartlett for some crime, or really any crime, should be enough to shield them from liability.
That is what the government argued. And that’s exactly what was granted: literally any arrestable offense trumps citizens’ First Amendment protections. This works out all too well for the government.
As Frank Zappa said, “The United States is a nation of laws, badly written and randomly enforced.” Here’s how Gorsuch puts it:
Both sides accept that an officer violates the First Amendment when he arrests an individual in retaliation for his protected speech. They seem to agree, too, that the presence of probable cause does not undo that violation or erase its significance. And for good reason. History shows that governments sometimes seek to regulate our lives finely, acutely, thoroughly, and exhaustively. In our own time and place, criminal laws have grown so exuberantly and come to cover so much previously innocent conduct that almost anyone can be arrested for something. If the state could use these laws not for their intended purposes but to silence those who voice unpopular ideas, little would be left of our First Amendment liberties, and little would separate us from the tyrannies of the past or the malignant fiefdoms of our own age.
Gorsuch goes on to point out the statute governing lawsuits like these (§1983) — civil suits alleging violations of rights by government employees — says nothing about probable cause. All it says is that civil servants can be held personally liable for depriving citizens of “any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution.” Certainly, probable cause for an arrest might defeat Fourth Amendment claims since that’s why there’s a probable cause requirement for arrests in the first place, but it shouldn’t be enough to instantly defeat claims of First Amendment retaliation. Applying this probable cause tests allows officers to get away with something they shouldn’t.
The point of this kind of claim isn’t to guard against officers who lack lawful authority to make an arrest. Rather, it’s to guard against officers who abuse their authority by making an otherwise lawful arrest for an unconstitutional reason.
Justice Ginsburg’s partial dissent also says this country has too many laws that can be too easily abused to establish precedent that any old probable cause will do.
Given the array of laws proscribing, e.g., breach of the peace, disorderly conduct, obstructing public ways, failure to comply with a peace officer’s instruction, and loitering, police may justify an arrest as based on probable cause when the arrest was in fact prompted by a retaliatory motive. If failure to show lack of probable cause defeats an action under 42 U. S. C. §1983, only entirely baseless arrests will be checked.
Sotomayor’s dissent aligns itself with Gorsuch and the majority’s mysterious decision to rewrite §1983 on the fly to add probable cause to the long list of ways government employees can dodge being held responsible for rights violations. Had the court restrained itself to a narrow decision and not placed an additional evidentiary burden on plaintiffs, this might have been OK. But it didn’t and in reaching this broader conclusion, it has opened the door for SCOTUS-sanctioned abuse.
Were it simply an unorthodox solution to an illusory problem, the standard announced today would be benign. But by rejecting direct evidence of unconstitutional motives in favor of more convoluted comparative proof, the majority’s standard proposes to ration First Amendment protection in an illogical manner. And those arbitrary legal results in turn will breed opportunities for the rare ill-intentioned officer to violate the First Amendment without consequence—and, in some cases, openly and unabashedly. These are costs the Court should not tolerate.
The standard the court has erected demands plaintiffs to provide evidence they are unlikely to ever obtain.
[T]he majority suggests that comparison-based evidence is the sole gateway through the probable-cause barrier that it otherwise erects. Such evidence can be prohibitively difficult to come by in other selective-enforcement contexts, and it may be even harder for retaliatory arrest plaintiffs to muster. After all, while records of arrests and prosecutions can be hard to obtain, it will be harder still to identify arrests that never happened. And unlike race, gender, or other protected characteristics, speech is not typically sorted into statistical buckets that are susceptible of ready categorization and comparison.
The impossibility of meeting this evidentiary bar, along with the broader proclamation that probable cause beats the First Amendment in nearly every situation, pretty much dead-ends future retaliatory arrest lawsuits. Cops may not be the best students of the law, but they’re pretty quick to pick up on legal declarations that excuse abuses of their power.
Whatever momentum has been gained by legal decisions supporting the right of citizens to film police officers has just been undercut. We’ve already seen years of bullshit arrests for filming cops. This decision says officers are free to continue violating First Amendment rights if there’s any conceivable law someone might be breaking while engaging in “protected” speech. We have too many laws on the books to give law enforcement officers this much deference in enforcing them, especially when Constitutional rights are on the line.