Appeals Court Extends Qualified Immunity To Cops Who Knew They Were Violating A Photographer's Rights
from the goodbye,-subjective.-hello,-far-more-favorable-objective! dept
“Training and expertise.” Let’s talk about it.
This boilerplate phrase shows up in search warrants and other law enforcement paperwork — something used a preemptive defense for whatever rights violations might occur subsequent to these sworn statements. Using “training and expertise” as the foundation for a defense against lawsuits and accusations of bias is handy: it shows the officer was being “reasonable” and only engaged in a roadside fishing expedition or hurled a flashbang grenade into a toddler’s crib because all of this “training” led officers to believe criminals often engage in [Action X], thus justifying law enforcement [Action Y].
But this blanket assertion is as useless and full of shit as this Tenth Circuit Appeals Court decision granting qualified immunity to officers who detained someone for recording them while they assaulted an arrestee. (h/t Brad Heath)
Remember, the “training” is important. When raising a qualified immunity defense, it’s always helpful to point out you couldn’t possibly have known better because you were “trained” to react to certain stimuli with certain actions. The “training” (along with the years of “expertise”) sets the stage. A cop is only as good as their training. And if the training left something crucial out, how is a cop to know the rights violations they engaged in were rights violations? It’s not like we expect cops to be legal experts, despite the fact their job is literally enforcing the law.
So, let’s get to the legal contortions [PDF] the Tenth Circuit deploys to excuse cops who should not have been allowed to claim they didn’t know better when they infringed on a citizen’s First Amendment rights.
Here’s how it starts:
After Plaintiff-Appellee Levi Frasier video-recorded Denver police officers using force while arresting an uncooperative suspect in public, one of the officers followed Mr. Frasier to his car and asked him to provide a statement on what he had seen and to turn over his video of the arrest. Mr. Frasier at first denied having filmed the arrest but ultimately showed the officer the tablet computer on which he had video-recorded it. He did so after an officer, Defendant-Appellant Christopher L. Evans, and four other members of the Denver Police Department, Officer Charles C. Jones, Detective John H. Bauer, Sergeant Russell Bothwell, and Officer John Robledo—the other Defendants-Appellants—surrounded him and allegedly pressured him to comply with their demand to turn over the video. Mr. Frasier contends that when he showed Officer Evans the tablet computer, the officer grabbed it from his hands and searched it for the video without his consent.
The right to record public officials is pretty well established. Even without cases on point, there’s a strong presumption in favor of those who do the recording. But that doesn’t matter in the Tenth Circuit — at least not in this case.
There are multiple layers of bullshit here, starting with the lower court’s decision, which inexplicably decided Frasier’s First Amendment rights were less important than the officers’ official excuse for their retaliatory behavior. It starts with the district court giving officers a pass for asking questions they really had no right to ask.
The district court, as relevant here, held that Officer Evans had reasonable suspicion to detain Mr. Frasier throughout their twenty-three-minute encounter because Mr. Frasier lied to him about filming the arrest, thereby potentially violating Colorado Revised Statutes § 18-8-111, which proscribes knowingly making certain false statements to the police.
If you’re not being detained or suspected of committing any crime, the correct answer to questions from uniformed interlopers is “none of your fucking business.” I don’t know what law the lower court was reading, but nothing in this statute forbids lying to cops about recording. It covers false fire/emergency alarms, falsely reporting crimes, and falsely identifying yourself. There is nothing in this law that says lying to cops about the presence of a recording not linked to any other criminal offense is a violation of the statute.
Starting from the lower court’s misinterpretation of a law that does not address anything that happened here, the Tenth Circuit moves on to even more disturbing findings.
Here’s more detail on the “interaction” that led to this lawsuit. Fraiser recorded a traffic stop of a suspected drug dealer. Things appeared to be getting out of hand. Frasier began recording on his tablet. Despite supposedly being otherwise occupied with the detainment of a dangerous drug suspect, cops decided to approach the guy sitting harmlessly across the street recording the arrest.
Behold cops calling out cameras like they’ve spotted an actual weapon:
As the suspect finally let go of the sock, Sergeant Bothwell called out “Camera.”
A camera is obviously far less dangerous than a gun. Nevertheless, the officers approached Frasier and asked him to make a statement. Frasier hid his tablet in his car, presuming (not unreasonably!) officers would try to make the recording disappear. And that’s where this went:
Officer Evans told Mr. Frasier that he needed a witness statement from him. When he asked Mr. Frasier whether he had video of the arrest, Mr. Frasier claimed that he did not. Then, Officer Evans pointed to the back seat of his patrol car and told Mr. Frasier, “Well, we could do this the easy way or we could do this the hard way.” Mr. Frasier thought that Officer Evans was threatening to take him to jail if he did not produce the video. The officer handed Mr. Frasier a witness statement form, which he proceeded to fill out. After Mr. Frasier provided a skeletal written account of what he had seen (one that omitted the officers’ use of force against the suspect and the screaming woman), Officer Evans wrote a series of questions on the form that he then had Mr. Frasier answer.
The questions concerned whether Mr. Frasier observed “the officers do anything inappropriate” or use any force after “they had the suspect in custody,” and whether he had taken (and still had) any “video footage of the incident.” Mr. Frasier responded in writing that he did not see any inappropriate police conduct, that the officers stopped using force as soon as they had the suspect in custody, and that he took only a Snapchat photo of the arrest, which he no longer had a copy of because “Snapchat removes [footage] as soon as you send [it].” Mr. Frasier’s answers were all lies; he admitted that he lied on the police form because he was afraid that if he told the truth he “would have been incarcerated and the video that [he] took would be taken away.”
Mr. Frasier retrieved his tablet computer and showed it to Officer Evans. He and Officer Evans “ducked behind the open hatchback of a nearby SUV,” where they “were mostly hidden from view.” Officer Evans grabbed the tablet computer out of Mr. Frasier’s hands and began to search for the video of the arrest, asking him where it was. Mr. Frasier told Officer Evans that he could not search his computer without a warrant, but Officer Evans held onto it for thirty to forty-five seconds. While searching through it, Officer Evans called back over his shoulder, “I don’t see the video in here. I can’t find it.” An unidentified officer responded, “As long as there’s no video, it’s okay.” Officer Evans then handed the tablet back to Mr. Frasier.
Hey, that’s pretty cool. Cops can grab witnesses and demand they answer — in front of them — whether or not they felt officers engaged in excessive force or misconduct. How’s that for coercion? I sincerely hope the Denver PD isn’t using the results of these involuntary polls to claim it’s engaging in better, more respectful policing. That data is beyond useless.
It’s hard to believe it gets worse than this but it does. The district court, despite some early missteps, came to the correct conclusion: this was a violation of Frasier’s rights. Even though it concluded there was no clearly-established right to record police officers in this district in 2014 (when the incident occurred), it did say the Denver PD officers should have known they were violating rights when they went after the person recording them. Why? Because they had received training that made it clear recording cops was protected activity.
The Tenth Circuit Appeals Court, however, thinks training is worth less than circuit precedent, even though officers are always going to be far more familiar with PD training than on-point Appeals Court decisions. The district court dismissed the city from Frasier’s lawsuit pointing specifically to the First Amendment training officers had received from the PD — training that said citizens had a right to record them. Thus, it was clear the city wasn’t at fault. The officers were adequately trained.
Adequate training means nothing, says the Tenth Circuit:
[T]he district court erred in concluding that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity because they actually knew from their training that such a First Amendment right purportedly existed—even though the court had determined that they did not violate any clearly established right. There are two salient, independent grounds for concluding that the district court’s ruling was wrong. First, and perhaps most significantly, a defendant’s eligibility for qualified immunity is judged by an objective standard and, therefore, what the officer defendants subjectively understood or believed the law to be was irrelevant with respect to the clearly-established-law question. Second, judicial decisions are the only valid interpretive source of the content of clearly established law, and, consequently, whatever training the officers received concerning the nature of Mr. Frasier’s First Amendment rights was irrelevant to the clearly-established-law inquiry.
So, you can tell a cop it’s a bad idea — perhaps even a rights violation — to screw with people recording police officers. Then the Appeals Court will come along and rule that cops only need to rely on court precedent — something they’re far less likely to be aware of than daily briefings and internal policy changes. What is “reasonable” for officers to know? The Tenth Circuit says it’s only circuit precedent, no matter how esoteric. And it says this even when it says otherwise:
When government officials are performing discretionary functions, they will not be held liable for their conduct unless their actions violate “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”
Is it “reasonable” for officers to believe department training that says going after people who record officers likely violates their rights? Or is it “reasonable” for officers to believe they can continue to violate rights until a court is actually willing to establish precedent that aligns with their training? The Tenth Circuit says only the latter is “reasonable.” Training given to all officers is still somehow “subjective” knowledge, even though (1) all Denver PD officers received the training and (2) it was based on legal decisions pointing to a presumed First Amendment right to record police officers.
It is therefore “irrelevant” whether each officer defendant actually believed—or even in some sense knew—that his conduct violated a statutory or constitutional right—more specifically, the First Amendment. […] The district court therefore erred in denying the officer defendants qualified immunity regarding Mr. Frasier’s First Amendment retaliation claim based on their subjective knowledge of Mr. Frasier’s purported First Amendment right to record them on the public street performing their duties.
And I guess that’s how it works: we don’t expect cops to be legal experts but I think it’s fair to expect they should be cognizant of their training. And their training said going after people recording them was a good way to get sued. These cops did get sued. But it’s the Appeals Court that’s handing down unearned forgiveness for these acts, one that says it really doesn’t matter what cops know or don’t know when it comes to rights violations.