retaliatory arrest

It has been three cases and nearly a decade in the making but the Supreme Court has finally ruled in Nieves v. Bartlett that the existence of probable cause defeats a First Amendment retaliatory arrest case…with one, small caveat. The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief in favor of the broader ruling in this case.

While police officer Luis Nieves and Russell Bartlett have different versions of what happened at Artic Man, a weeklong winter sports festival in Alaska, even the Ninth Circuit agreed that Sergeant Nieves had probable cause to arrest Bartlett. Sergeant Nieves knew Bartlett had been drinking and talking loudly when he saw Bartlett stand close to another officer and the officer push Bartlett away. But Bartlett claimed Sergeant Nieves really arrested him in violation of his First Amendment free speech rights because he had refused to speak to Sergeant Nieves previously, which Bartlett reminded Sergeant Nieves of when he was being arrested.

The Supreme Court decides numerous difficult cases each term. It may be surprising that no issue has vexed the Court like whether probable cause to arrest someone means they can’t bring a First Amendment retaliation case. In Nieves v. Bartlett the State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) argues in an amicus brief (for the third time) that probable cause defeats First Amendment retaliation claims.   

Russell Bartlett 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. 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.

Fane Lozman may be the only person to fit within a “unique class of retaliatory arrest claims.” But that is all it took for him to win his (second) Supreme Court case.

In an 8-1 decision in Lozman v. Riviera Beach, the Supreme Court held that a citizen who was arrested for making comments at a city council meeting (possibly because the City had an official policy of retaliating against him) was not barred from bringing a First Amendment retaliatory arrest claim against the City even if it had probable cause to arrest him.

The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief arguing that an arrestee could not bring a First Amendment retaliatory arrest lawsuit if probable cause existed. The Court declined to decide whether as a general rule probable cause bars First Amendment retaliation cases against police officers.    

The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) Supreme Court amicus brief in Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach argues if probable cause exists to make an arrest the arrestee should be barred from bringing a First Amendment retaliatory arrest lawsuit.

Fane Lozman lived in a floating house in the...

What if a police officer arrests someone in retaliation for engaging in speech protected by the First Amendment but the officer also had probable cause to arrest that person for different, legitimate reason? In Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach the Supreme Court will decide whether that person may sue the police officer for violating his or her First Amendment rights.

Fane Lozman lived in a floating house in the Riviera Beach Marina. The City proposed to redevelop the marina using eminent domain and Lozman became “an outspoken critic” regularly criticizing the mayor and city council at council meetings. At a city council meeting Lozman offered comments about former county commissioners who had served in other communities being arrested. A councilperson had Lozman arrested for refusing to stop talking. Lozman was not ultimately charged with disorderly conduct or resisting arrest.