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Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Wow, there is a right that is clearly established

According to the Eighth Circuit, it is the right to destroy an American flag for expressive purposes. And an officer who does not know that is the plainly incompetent officer who does not warrant qualified immunity and should be liable for damages.

A police officer in Gape Girardeau, MO arrested Snider--pursuant to a warrant obtained from a county judge on an application from the county prosecutor--for violating the state's flag desecration law. According to the case, neither the officer nor the prosecutor (nor, we must assume, the judge) knew about Texas v. Johnson; the charges were dismissed and Snider was released when a reporter called the prosecutor and told him about the case. Snider then filed a § 1983 action, claiming the arrest violated the First and Fourteent Amendments.

The Eight Circuit agreed that the officer (who conceded that Snider's rights were violated) lacked qualified immunity. Johnson and United States v. Eichman established in 1989-1990 that someone could not be punished for using the American flag to express an opinion and a reasonably competent officer in 2009 (the time of Snider's arrest) would have known that. The officer was not saved by the judge issuing a warrant; while a warrant typically indicates the officer acted in an objectively reasonable manner in effecting an arrest, this case fell within the exception where no reasonably competent officer would have concluded that the warrant was valid, given the clearly established state of the law.

There is some other good § 1983 stuff in this case, including the unexplained intervention of the State of Missouri, attorney's fees (imposed in part on the State, even though it could not have been liable in the case), and the rejection of a failure-to-train claim against the city (one could argue that an officer who does not know something as basic as Johnson has not been constitutionally trained) because the State, not the local government, is responsible for training local police officers.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 3, 2014 at 09:31 AM in Civil Procedure, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink

Comments

My next get-rich-quick scheme: go to Cape Girardeau and walk around in a "Fuck the Draft" jacket.

Posted by: Michael Mannheimer | Jun 3, 2014 12:29:47 PM

Was the defendant related to Rush Limbaugh? Many folks down there are!

Posted by: anon | Jun 3, 2014 1:34:48 PM

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