Sunday, July 09, 2017
Citizen video and other § 1983 puzzles
In Fields v. City of Philadelphia, the Third Circuit joined the parade of courts of appeals recognizing a First Amendment right to record police in public in a non-interfering way, subject to time, place, and manner limitations. It is now the Fifth, First, Seventh, Eleventh, and Ninth Circuits, with none going the other way (prior to this, the Third Circuit had avoided the issue by twice holding that the right was not clearly established without addressing the merits). The case arose from two separate actions--one by a woman who was physically moved and held to keep her from recording the arrest of a protester, the other by a man who was arrested and charged with obstructing a public passage for recording officers from a sidewalk across the street.
In explaining the need for and importance of this First Amendment right, the court included this line: "To record what there is the right for the eye to see or the ear to hear corroborates or lays aside subjective impressions for objective facts. Hence to record is to see and hear more accurately." Recent experience with body cameras and police shootings shows this statement, at least in the absolute form presented in the first sentence, is wrong. Not that recording is not or should not be protected; only that it does not present "objective fact" or eliminate subjectivity. In fact, subjectivity likely is why the police officers involved in the incidents in this case stopped the plaintiffs from recording--they did not want video getting out that could be viewed by the public in an adverse way, even if they might have found a way to explain it away.Second, this decision may be as significant for its discussion of § 1983 doctrine, showing how qualified immunity makes damages liability difficult, if not impossible.
The City asked the court to pretermit the merits and grant qualified immunity (as had two prior Third Circuit panels) because the right was not clearly established. The court declined to "take the easy way out." In justifying this approach, the court pointed to several considerations that SCOTUS identified as benefits to merits-first: the importance and frequency of the constitutional issue, the need of police departments for guidance on the issue, the purely legal, non-fact-bound nature of the issue, and the quality of the briefing (with amicus briefs from several advocacy organizations, a group of First Amendment professors, and DOJ's Civil Rights Division).
Nevertheless, after recognizing the right, the majority held that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because the right to record was not clearly established. There was no Third Circuit precedent and precedent from other circuits and from district courts was factually distinguishable (some of those cases based the right on the presence of expressive intent by the recorder, while the Third Circuit recognized a right to record, regardless of what the recorder planned to do with the recording). The court also refused to find the right clearly established based on Philadelphia Police Department policy recognizing a First Amendment right to record. The problem was that the plaintiffs sought municipal liability based on the failure of those policies to effectively instruct officers about this right; if the policies were ineffective, then they could not clearly establish the right so any reasonable officer would know there was a First Amendment right to record, as most officers did not know of the right.
Judge Nygaard dissented on qualified immunity. He argued that the right was clearly established given the unanimity in other circuits, Department policy, and 2012 DOJ recommendations that local departments establish policies to affirmatively set forth the First Amendment right;* those three things placed the right to record "beyond debate" and placed officers on unambiguous actual notice that they must allow members of the public to record their activities. Nygaard also argued that a reasonable officer's "lived experience" informed him of the pervasiveness of recording devices and their routine integration into daily lives, with the resulting First Amendment implications.
[*] Recent consent decrees with cities such as Ferguson and Baltimore included provisions requiring police departments to recognize and not interfere with the First Amendment right to record in public.
The majority's analysis demonstrates the unfortunate breadth of qualified immunity. Factual distinctions are always possible with precedent--the Third Circuit had previously accepted (or at least had not flatly rejected) that there might be a meaningful distinction between filming a sidewalk encounter and filming a traffic stop. It thus is possible that this decision will do nothing for the next case in which an officer prevents someone from recording, if the officer can find some small distinction to the incidents in this case--the recorder was on the same side of the street rather than across the street, the person was momentarily stopped from recording but not arrested, the plaintiff was recording a physical altercation rather than an arrest. The possible distinctions are boundless.
I also do not buy the reasons the majority rejected reliance on department policy as a basis to clearly establish the right. There is nothing inconsistent with saying that department policy should have placed a reasonable officer on notice that there was a constitutional right to record (thus clearly establishing the right) and that department policy was constitutionally insufficient because officers were ignoring it and department officials were not providing further training (thus establishing municipal liability). They go to different issues involving different standards.
On the other hand, SCOTUS' recent string of summary reversals rejects the big-picture approach to qualified immunity that the dissent took in relying on broad legal principles divorced from specific facts, with no applicable SCOTUS precedent. So while normatively preferable, Judge Nygaard's approach would draw more attention and a possible summary reversal.
About the police department policy, in the first place I'm genuinely unaware of law either way on whether a police department's legal opinion, reflected in some department policy, is sufficient to clearly establish the law. What if the department's opinion is arguably wrong under circuit precedent, or what if the department's opinion adopts one side of a circuit split (which I know is not the case here, but I'm not so much interested in this case as the role department policy generally plays)? Assuming that department policy can clearly establish the law in the way circuit precedent can, I agree that the standards for qualified immunity and municipal liability are different; here, however, it seems that no one was aware of the policy, not just that it was ineffective. Now, if department policy is just like circuit precedent, about which we have the legal fiction that a reasonable officer knows all about what circuit precedent says, then I suppose it doesn't matter that no one knew about the policy. But if we don't employ that legal fiction when it comes to department policy and instead look at how police are actually trained in the department, then you end up somewhere else. I can see arguments either way; the fiction of knowledge of precedent seems to run from maxims about ignorance of the law, which department policies don't implicate. That said, a reasonable officer should probably know more about his department's policies than circuit precedent.
Posted by: Asher Steinberg | Jul 9, 2017 5:25:25 PM