Every year, the Supreme Court hears and rules in a wide variety of difficult cases. And when it comes to the legal matters at stake, some tend to pop up once, while others recur over years or decades.
But in recent years, no issue has vexed the court quite like one nagging question: whether probable cause to arrest someone means they can’t bring a First Amendment retaliation case.
Slated for the court’s upcoming term, the case of Nieves v. Bartlett concerns the story of Russell Bartlett, who was attending Arctic Man, an Alaskan snowmobile race, when he declined to talk to Police Officer Luis Nieves, who was patrolling the large outdoor party.
Officer Nieves later observed Bartlett yelling at a separate officer, Bryce Weight, and Weight pushing Bartlett away. Believing Bartlett posed a danger to Officer Weight, Officer Nieves arrested Bartlett. Bartlett alleges that Nieves said “bet you wish you had talked to me now” in the process of the arrest.
Bartlett sued Officer Nieves claiming Nieves arrested him in retaliation for his refusal to initially speak to Nieves in violation of the First Amendment. The district concluded there was probable cause to arrest Bartlett.
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All federal circuit courts to decide this issue except the Ninth Circuit have held that to bring a First Amendment retaliatory arrest case plaintiffs must be able to prove the absence of probable cause to arrest them, which Bartlett could do not in this case.
But in the Ninth Circuit a plaintiff will win a First Amendment retaliatory arrest claim if he or she can “demonstrate that the officers’ conduct would chill a person of ordinary firmness from future First Amendment activity” and the evidence “ultimately [proves] that the officers’ desire to chill his [or her] speech was a but-for cause” of the arrest.
The State and Local Legal Center has filed an amicus brief in this case arguing that the court should reject the Ninth Circuit test and hold that in general probable cause defeats First Amendment retaliation claims. According to the brief, a no-probable-cause rule gives law enforcement clear guidance in the field, will better weed out frivolous retaliatory-arrest claims early on, and will dissuade plaintiffs from asserting meritless claims at all.
The brief also points out the 50 state constitutions also protect free speech. State courts may interpret state constitutions more broadly than the federal constitution.
In Reichle v. Howards (2012) the Supreme Court failed to decide whether to adopt the no-probable-cause rule in First Amendment retaliatory arrest claims. Instead it gave qualified immunity to Secret Service agents who arrested Steven Howards for touching Vice President Dick Cheney and lying about it. Howards told Cheney his “policies in Iraq are disgusting.”
In Lozman v. Riviera Beach (2018) the Court held that Fane Lozman, who was arrested at a city council meeting for refusing to stop talking, was not barred from bringing a First Amendment retaliatory arrest claim even though the city had probable cause to arrest him.
Lozman claimed the city council arrested him as part of a strategy to intimidate him because he filed a lawsuit against the city. The court declined to decide as a general rule whether probable cause is required to bring a more typical retaliatory arrest cases like Nieves.
Sean Gallagher, Bennett Cohen, and Britton St. Onge of Polsinelli wrote the SLLC amicus brief, which was joined by the National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties, the United States Conference of Mayors, the International City/County Management Association, and the International Municipal Lawyers Association.
About the author: Lisa Soronen is the executive director of the State and Local Legal Center, which files Supreme Court amicus curiae briefs on behalf of the Big Seven national organizations, including the National League of Cities, representing state and local governments. She is a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.