NC Appeals Court Withdraws Its Horrendous, Free Speech-Damaging Opinion On Retaliatory Arrests
from the ctrl-z dept
Late last week, the North Carolina State Court of Appeals released an astounding decision. Ignoring a number of precedential rulings finding otherwise, the court decided it was okay for state law enforcement officers to engage in retaliatory arrests, so long as they could find something to charge a citizen with.
In this case, a car carrying a passenger who flipped the bird to a trooper engaged in a traffic stop was pulled over for… um… “disturbing the peace.” Apparently, all hell was on the verge of breaking loose due to the enthusiastic bird-flipping in the direction of the officer. By the time the stop was over, the passenger was arrested for obstructing an officer. This was because the passenger refused to ID himself, which isn’t actually a crime in North Carolina.
The court looked at this retaliatory traffic stop and eventual arrest and said, yeah, I guess it’s “reasonable” to assume a drive-by birding is a criminal act in the making, even if the supposed initiating factor (the finger) was protected expression.
The dissenting opinion was the only reasonable thing about the decision. It pointed out one person’s obscene gesture was highly unlikely to result in disturbed peace and that the traffic stop was nothing more than a fishing expedition to find something to charge the bird-flipping passenger with.
The dissent may soon become the official opinion of the court. Owen Barcala points out on Twitter that the Appeals Court has withdrawn the opinion. Here’s what’s up at the court’s website instead of its ridiculously harmful take on the First Amendment.
IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that the opinion filed in this case on 6 August 2019 be withdrawn. The Clerk of the Court of Appeals is hereby directed not to certify said opinion. This cause is retained by this Court for disposition by the panel to which it is assigned…
So, good news is on the way, as it seems unlikely the court will reissue a new opinion that comes to the same conclusion, but with different words.
There’s a theory out there that this opinion was ratioed to death by the universal scorn heaped on it by pretty much everybody, including actual lawyers with actual law degrees. Law prof Howard Wasserman thinks Twitter may have forced the court to reconsider its hot take on retaliatory arrests. His post on the swift withdrawal by the court suggests citizens should stay in their own lane and let the courts go about the business of reshaping the contours of the public’s interactions with law enforcement without any outside input.
Today, the court of appeals withdrew the opinion, with the panel retaining jurisdiction to dispose of the case. No idea what that means. It could mean a majority will hold that the officer lacked probable cause to stop the case. Or it could mean a new opinion finding a basis for probable cause that does not involve constitutionally protected expression.
While this is good for the First Amendment, it is hard not to wonder how much the universal derision the opinion received on the interwebs affected the judges and their decision to reverse course (as to reasoning if not result). And it is hard not to think that this is not a good thing for the judicial process. There are processes in place for reconsidering a decision. Those processes should not involve Twitter.
Great idea. Let’s just silo judges off from the public they serve. They should ignore all other input but their own to maximize their ability to act as a check against government overreach. This is a ridiculous take and hopefully Wasserman will follow it with a retraction of his own.
No one’s suggesting judges should issue Twitter polls before ruling, but they’re not incapable of making mistakes. When they do, they should feel the heat. If this nudges them towards reconsideration of a controversial ruling, we’re all going to be a bit better off.