Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Federal Courts - Qualified Immunity - Sixth Circuit Denies Qualified Immunity to Police Officer for Arrest for Speech at Public Meeting

Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Federal Courts - Qualified Immunity - Sixth Circuit Denies Qualified Immunity to Police Officer for Arrest for Speech at Public Meeting

Article excerpt


Qualified immunity shields public officials performing discretionary functions from suit for civil rights violations as long as "their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." (1) However, the Supreme Court has given no clear guidance to the lower courts in determining what rights are at issue in a given case, producing uncertainty concerning defendants' potential immunity and plaintiffs' burden of proof. (2) The result is a "level of specificity" problem: in some jurisdictions, plaintiffs must point to a precedent establishing only an abstract legal principle, while in others they must find cases that are almost factually identical. (3) Recently, in Leonard v. Robinson, (4) the Sixth Circuit held that a police officer who arrested a town resident for cursing during a town meeting was not entitled to qualified immunity because the officer's actions violated the clearly established right to speak freely "at a democratic assembly where the speaker is not out of order." (5) Although Leonard appropriately denied qualified immunity in light of the important First Amendment rights at stake, it evinces the particular difficulties associated with applying the Supreme Court's "clearly established rights" test in cases involving the First Amendment.

On October 15, 2002, Thomas Leonard and his wife attended a meeting of the Township Board of Montrose, Michigan. (6) At the time, the Leonards were embroiled in a lawsuit with the township; Leonard alleged that the lawsuit created bad blood between his family and the Montrose Chief of Police and that this enmity led the latter to order police officer Stephen Robinson to attend the meeting that night. (7) During the portion of the meeting called "Citizen Time," Thomas addressed the Board, saying, among other things, "We're sick and tired of getting screwed" and "That's why you're in a God damn lawsuit." (8) After the Township Supervisor reprimanded Leonard for his language, Officer Robinson escorted Leonard from the room and placed him under arrest. (9) Leonard was charged under two state statutes with being a disorderly person and with obscenity. (10) He was released after being detained for an hour at the police station; the citation was voided and dismissed one month later. (11)

On June 6, 2003, Leonard filed a [section] 1983 action against Officer Robinson in his personal capacity, alleging three state-law torts and a violation of his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizure under color of law. (12) Robinson removed the case to federal court and filed a motion for summary judgment, alleging that he was protected from suit by qualified immunity because he had had probable cause to arrest Leonard under four state statutes--the two under which Leonard was charged, as well as two others outlawing cursing and the disturbance of a lawful meeting. (13) Leonard raised a First Amendment retaliation claim in his response. (14)

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan granted Robinson's motion for summary judgment and dismissed Leonard's case. (15) The court noted that the obscenity statute under which Leonard was charged had been invalidated prior to his arrest, (16) but found that the other three statutes had given Robinson probable cause. (17) Turning to Leonard's First Amendment retaliation claim, the district court found no causal connection between Leonard's speech and his arrest. (18) Because the court found no evidence that he had arrested Leonard in bad faith, it declined to infer a retaliatory motive on Officer Robinson's part. (19)

The Sixth Circuit reversed and remanded. (20) Writing for the panel, Chief Judge Boggs (21) rejected Robinson's claim that he was "charged to enforce laws until and unless they are declared unconstitutional. …

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