A Midwestern federal appeals court has affirmed a lower court's ruling protecting Americans' First Amendment right to criticize police.
The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals' judgment on Monday also prevented Minnesota police officers from shielding themselves from lawsuits charging violations of constitutional rights.
The majority of the three-judge panel said police officers lacked probable cause to arrest Brian Hoyland for obstructing the legal process, and the court rejected the officers' claims of "qualified immunity" in defense of their error. Qualified immunity refers to the legal protection from civil liability given to public officials who do not violate an individual's "clearly established" constitutional or statutory rights.
"Police officers have a tough job," wrote Judge Bobby Shepherd in the 2-1 opinion. "They must confront dangerous situations and make difficult decisions in short time frames. This is why we offer the protection of qualified immunity — to insulate officers from the constant threat of litigation while serving and safeguarding their fellow citizens. But to receive that protection, we must find as a matter of law that the officers acted within the confines of the Constitution ... Looking at the facts of this case, we cannot hold as a matter of law that the officers acted constitutionally."
The dispute involves Hoyland who "awoke one evening to the sights and sounds of police officers standing with guns drawn in front of his home," as Shepherd wrote in the appeals court's opinion.
"He saw his wife, a handicapped woman, standing in the driveway with her arms raised in the air," Shepherd wrote. "He then heard someone yell 'shoot' or 'shooting.' Hoyland quickly turned on the porch light, opened the front door, stood in his doorway, and screamed at the officers, who stood 30-40 feet away. The officers ordered him back inside. He remained in his doorway and approximately thirty seconds after he opened the door to his home, an officer declared him to be under arrest."
Hoyland used his phone to record the officers when standing on his porch, and "within seconds" an officer yelled, "Drop the camera!" Hoyland screamed in response, "You are in my yard!" and informed the officers that his wife was handicapped.
Upon arresting Hoyland, the police stood in his yard and arrested his wife, who had been traveling with a man in a Corvette who the officers had suspected of drag racing. Even though the driver had no outstanding warrants, the officers reportedly witnessed the car "partially cross the road's center dividing line" and decided to make a stop.
When the car did not immediately pull over but parked in the driveway of the house after "40 seconds," two officers drew their weapons and pointed them at the driver. Both the driver and Hoyland's wife left the vehicle upon request and raised their hands above their heads, but Hoyland's wife struggled to walk backward as instructed because she "suffers paralysis in one of her legs."
"Throughout this encounter, Hoyland never left the area around his front door, failing to ever come closer than 30-40 feet from the officers," Shepherd wrote. "He never told his wife or [the driver] to disobey the officers' commands. He never ran away or resisted the officers as he himself was arrested. Finally, he never physically intervened, and never attempted to physically intervene, in the arrest of anyone."
Shepherd noted that while it's "entirely possible" the police officers chose to arrest Hoyland because of his refusal to follow orders, the officers made the decision after Hoyland "stood in the doorway shouting criticisms and messages about his wife's physical disability."
The majority opinion noted that the First Amendment protects Hoyland's critical speech, which the officers claimed "amounted to obstruction." The appeals court said the officers' argument was false because Hoyland did not obstruct the police.
The officers also fought Hoyland's claim of First Amendment protection by arguing that he had no constitutional right to observe a traffic stop or arresting officer in conversation, but the court rejected that argument by pointing out that Hoyland was "standing in the doorway of his own home trying to tell the officers that his wife was handicapped."
But the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals' panel opinion was not unanimous, as Judge Steven Colloton wrote in dissent. President Trump formerly included Colloton on his shortlists of potential candidates to fill the Supreme Court's vacant seat created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
"Police officers have a tough job. Decisions like this one make it tougher," Colloton wrote, taking aim at the majority's opinion. "By denying qualified immunity on undisputed facts, the majority necessarily concludes that the officers here were plainly incompetent or knowingly violated the law. In my view, the limited clearly established law concerning the Minnesota statute does not justify that conclusion when the analysis is properly particularized to the facts of this case. I would reverse the order of the district court and direct entry of judgment in favor of the officers based on qualified immunity."
Barring an appeal to the Supreme Court, the case will proceed before a jury.