Cops Lose Qualified Immunity After Arresting Man For A Snarky Facebook Comment
from the no-time-for-facts!-move-move-move! dept
Three cops have just had their qualified immunity stripped by an appeals court for turning an innocuous, snarky Facebook comment into an arrest. It wasn’t all the officers’ fault. A “helpful” citizen playing internet telephone forwarded the comment to someone who happened to be married to a police officer and everything went from bad to worse to unconstitutional from there.
Here’s how the whole thing started, as related by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decision [PDF]:
On January 25, 2015, James Ross was a 20-year-old resident of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and an active user of the social media website, Facebook. Facebook allows users to connect with each other by establishing “friend” relationships and posting items to a personal feed that can be viewed by the user’s friends. That evening, one of Ross’s Facebook friends posted an image (or meme) that showed a number of different firearms below the title “Why I need a gun.” Above each type of gun was an explanation of what the gun could be used for—e.g., above a shotgun: “This one for burglars & home invasions”; above a rifle with a scope: “This one for putting food on the table”; and above an assault rifle: “This one for self-defense against enemies foreign & domestic, for preservation of freedom & liberty, and to prevent government atrocities.” Ross interpreted this post as advocating against gun control measures. Ross, an advocate in favor of gun control measures, commented on the post: “Which one do I need to shoot up a kindergarten?” Ross then logged off Facebook and went to bed.
This post — along with Ross’ response — was deleted shortly thereafter by the original poster. But another user forwarded a screenshot of the post and comment to a cousin of the poster. The court notes “no annotation or additional commentary” accompanied the forwarded screenshot. The cousin receiving the screenshot was married to Officer Ryan Medlin of the Jackson Police Department.
Medlin then forwarded the screenshot to two other cops and they all decided to find Ross and arrest him when they started their next shift. This was handled as badly as possible by all three officers. Ross was approached at work by a plainclothes officer presenting himself as a customer. When he stepped out from behind the counter to speak to this person, he was arrested.
Ross attempted to explain himself but was instead read his Miranda rights and taken to the station. There, he wrote a statement explaining his snarky response to the Facebook post. This should have ended everything. Even the cops felt they had nothing to pin on Ross. Nevertheless…
According to Ross, several officers at the station told him they did not think the case was likely to go any further than the prosecuting attorney’s office. However, Ross was not allowed to leave. He was held at the Jackson Police Station until the next day, during which time he was served with a warrant for “Peace Disturbance.” The next day, he was transferred to the Cape Girardeau County Jail where he was held for another two to three days, until he bonded out by paying $1000 in cash. At some point during that period, Ross was formally charged with the class B misdemeanor of “Peace Disturbance” under Mo. Rev. Stat. § 574.010(1)(c) (2015).
This charge was dropped and Ross sued the officers. The district court granted the three officers qualified immunity, theorizing Ross’ right not to be arrested on bullshit charges following zero investigative effort prompted by a Facebook screenshot was not “clearly established.”
The Appeals Court disagrees
The officers were justified in their efforts to investigate Ross’s post. In current times and in light of current events, the statement demonstrated, at a minimum, questionable judgment. But the state statute at issue does not apply to any speech that is not a “true threat,” and—under Missouri precedent—a reasonable officer would have understood that.
[I]f any further investigation had led the officers to believe there was an immediate or imminent danger, they would have been justified in acting on that information. Here, however, no exigent circumstances prevented the officers from gathering additional information before making an arrest.
There was no reason to bypass this step just to effectuate an arrest of someone whose post didn’t fit the state law definition of a “true threat.” But that’s how these three do-gooders chose to handle it. Apparently, investigative efforts just gum up the wheels of justice.
In this case, even a “minimal further investigation” would have revealed that Ross’s post was not a true threat. See Pulaski, 306 F.3d at 623. The officers conducted no investigation into the context of the statement, Ross’s history of violence, or Ross’s political beliefs about gun ownership or gun control measures.
In sum, it is beyond debate that—had the officers engaged in minimal further investigation—the only reasonable conclusion was that Ross had not violated § 574.115.1(3).
This unconstitutional situation was further aggravated by the officers refusing to listen to anything Ross had to say until they had booked him and then deciding — after coming to the conclusion charges likely wouldn’t be pursued by the DA — to charge him anyway and keep him locked up until he made bail.
No one’s arguing law enforcement would have been wrong to engage in an investigation. What’s being stated here is exactly the opposite: that it’s wrong to arrest, book, and charge someone without engaging in any investigation at all in circumstances like these. And that was definitely clearly established long before these cops decided to get themselves sued.