probable cause

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.

Collins v. Virginia is like a tricky logic problem. Police need a warrant to search the curtilage of a home but not to search a vehicle. So is a warrant needed to search a vehicle located on the curtilage of a home? Yes holds the Supreme Court.

More technically, in an 8-1 decision the Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment automobile exception does not permit police officers to search vehicles parked in the curtilage of a home without a warrant.  

In District of Columbia v. Wesby the majority of the Supreme Court ruled D.C. police officers had probable cause to arrest individuals for holding a “raucous, late-night party in a house they did not have permission to enter.” All nine of the Justices ruled in favor of granting qualified immunity to the police officers. The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief in this case supporting D.C.  

Police were called to a home in D.C. around 1AM based on complaints of loud music and illegal activity. The house was dirty with no furniture downstairs except a few metal chairs. In the living room the officers found “a makeshift strip club”; they found “more debauchery upstairs.” While many partygoers said they were there for a bachelor party no one could identify the bachelor.

Two of the women working the party said that “Peaches” was renting the house and had given them permission to be there. Police officers called Peaches who told them she gave the partygoers permission to use the house. But she ultimately admitted that she had no permission to use the house herself; she was in the process of renting it. The landlord confirmed by phone that Peaches hadn’t signed a lease. The partygoers were charged with, but never prosecuted for, disorderly conduct.

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.

Imagine how often when police officers are deciding whether to arrest someone they are told a version of a story they don’t find believable. In a Supreme Court amicus brief in District of Columbia v. Wesby the State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) argues that the D.C. Circuit erred by applying an inflexible rule that when officers are making arrest decisions they must believe a suspect’s version of the story, even when circumstantial evidence indicates otherwise.

In this case police officers arrested a group of late-night partygoers for trespass. The party-goers gave police conflicting reasons for why they were at the house (birthday party v. bachelor party). Some said “Peaches” invited them to the house; others said they were invited by another guest. Police officers called Peaches who told them she gave the partygoers permission to use the house. But she admitted that she had no permission to use the house herself; she was in the process of renting it. The landlord confirmed by phone that Peaches hadn’t signed a lease. The partygoers were never charged with trespass.