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Friday, October 10, 2014

More on prosyletizing police

On Wednesday, I discussed a lawsuit brought by an Indiana woman who alleges that a police officer, at the end of a traffic stop, asked her about accepting Jesus as her lord and savior and gave her literature about an area Baptist ministry.

In my Civil Rights class on Thursday, we had an extended discussion of the case (the timing of the suit was perfect--we were finishing Qualified Immunity) that drove home for me the real chance that the officer will be able to successfully argue that the right was not clearly established. There probably is no case law on factual point--a police officer distributing religious material during a traffic stop without an explicit threat or punishment. Cases about proselytizing teachers are analogous (the complaint repeatedly alleges that the plaintiff did not feel free to leave, setting up a similar captive-audience situation combined with an implicit threat of punishment), but perhaps distinguishable in context. While there likely were department regs setting out proper conduct during a traffic stop, there likely was not an express prohibition on proselytizing. And there is a question of whether the stop was still ongoing. Is this the equivalent of selling foster children into slavery (Judge Posner's favorite example), so obvious that general anti-establishment principles are sufficient to clearly establish? Can we say the officer was "plainly incompetent" in believing it was constitutionally permissible to do this?

Update: On speaking with a colleague, I may be slightly more optimistic, as he points to two more avenues through which this right might be clearly established. First, officers are trained and should know that they cannot exceed the scope of a traffic stop in a way that is explicitly or implicitly coercive--to ask the driver on a date, to ask the driver for money, to sell their daughter's girl scout cookies, or to discuss who the driver is going to vote for in the next sheriff election; what the officer did here is not different in any meaningful way. Second, officers should know generally that they cannot stand in the public square and proselytize while in uniform and on-duty; that should put them on notice that they cannot do it during a traffic stop. Again, it all involves moving from general principles, so much depends on how willing the court is to see those general principles as establishing broad obligations of which a reasonable officer should have been aware.

Ultimately, it may not matter, as my guess is the officer (indemnified and represented by the city) will settle, as the case is not worth much money. But it reflects just how difficult life can be for § 1983 plaintiffs.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 10, 2014 at 09:31 AM in Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink

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