Suppose a section 1983 plaintiff alleges that a city had him arrested in retaliation for the exercise of his First Amendment rights. He claims that he was arrested (although never prosecuted) at a city council meeting when he got up to speak because he previously had criticized the city’s eminent domain redevelopment efforts and had also sued the city for violating the state’s Sunshine Act.
Ordinarily, such a plaintiff, in order to make out a section 1983 First Amendment retaliatory arrest claim, would only have to allege and prove that this impermissible retaliatory motive caused him harm, and the defendant would have the burden of disproving the absence of but-for causation in order to escape liability. But here the city argued that even if its motive was impermissible under the First Amendment, there was probable cause–an objective Fourth Amendment standard–to arrest the plaintiff anyway, and that this constituted a defense to the plaintiff’s First Amendment retaliation claim. What result?
The Supreme Court granted certiorari on November 13, 2017, in Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, No. 17-21, to deal with this very issue. In Lozman, the Eleventh Circuit ruled that probable cause is indeed a defense to a section 1983 First Amendment retaliatory arrest claim. Specifically, that court determined that a section 1983 retaliatory arrest plaintiff must allege and prove not only the retaliatory motive but the absence of probable cause as well. In other words, the absence of probable cause is an element of the section 1983 plaintiff’s retaliatory arrest claim.
This decision was based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Hartman v. Moore, 547 U.S. 250 (2006), which held that for section 1983 retaliatory prosecution claims against law enforcement officers (prosecutors themselves are absolutely immune from damages liability for their decision to prosecute), the plaintiff must allege and prove not only the impermissible motive but the absence of probable cause as well. The Court reasoned that there was a presumption of prosecutorial regularity that the section 1983 plaintiff must overcome as an element of his retaliatory prosecution case. Accordingly, as a matter of section 1983 statutory interpretation and policy (but not of constitutional law), the plaintiff should have this twin burden in retaliatory prosecution cases.
The Court in Hartman explained that a retaliatory prosecution case was very different from the usual First Amendment retaliation case that involves a relatively clear causal connection between the defendant’s impermissible motivation and the resulting injury to the plaintiff. It was appropriate in such cases to apply the Mount Healthy burden-shift rule under which the defendant has the burden of disproving but-for causation in order to prevail.
As discussed in a prior post, the Court had this same First Amendment retaliatory arrest issue before it previously in Reichle v. Howards, 566 U.S. 658 (2012). But it avoided addressing the merits by ruling for the individual defendants on qualified immunity grounds. See New Supreme Court Decision: Reichle v. Howards and First Amendment Retaliatory Arrests
Comment: The Court Should Reverse the Eleventh Circuit
In my view, the Court’s decision in Hartman should not be applied to First Amendment retaliatory arrest cases. The express reason for the Hartman rule is that First Amendment retaliatory prosecution cases involve a presumption of prosecutorial regularity. But this reason is clearly inapplicable where there is no prosecution and the constitutional challenge is to the arrest itself.
Moreover, First Amendment retaliatory arrest claims involve the impermissible motivation (a subjective inquiry) of law enforcement officers irrespective of probable cause, which is an objective inquiry. Under this objective inquiry, the existence of probable cause precludes a Fourth Amendment violation based on an arrest even where that arrest is grounded on an offense different from the offense for which probable cause is deemed to be present. This provides a great deal of protection for police officers who allegedly make arrests in violation of the Fourth Amendment. However, if a police officer arrests a person for racial reasons, and the claimed injury is grounded on those racial reasons, it should not matter for the Equal Protection claim–even if it would for a Fourth Amendment claim–that the officer had probable cause to do so. This reasoning should apply as well to section 1983 First Amendment retaliatory arrest claims.
It was always questionable whether the Court in Hartman should have allowed policy considerations to change the usual section 1983 causation rules in First Amendment retaliatory prosecution cases. Regardless, that reasoning should most definitely not be extended to First Amendment retaliatory arrest cases. Such policy considerations as are discussed in Hartman are most appropriately addressed, if they are to be addressed at all, as part of the qualified immunity inquiry, not the elements of the section 1983 retaliatory arrest claim.
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This post appeared originally on the NahmodLaw blog.