The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled unanimously [opinion, PDF] Monday in Reichle v. Howards [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] that two secret service agents are entitled to qualified immunity [Cornell LII backgrounder] in a lawsuit alleging retaliatory arrest. The petitioners are two Secret Service agents who arrested the respondent, Steven Howards, following an encounter with then-US vice president Dick Cheney. Petitioners had probable cause to arrest Howards, who in violation of 18 USC § 1001 [text] falsely denied making unsolicited physical contact with the vice president. Howards later brought a First Amendment [text] retaliatory arrest claim against petitioners. The issues before the court were (1) whether the existence of probable cause to make an arrest bars a First Amendment retaliatory arrest claim; and (2) whether the purported right under the first amendment is "clearly established," such that the arresting officers did not have qualified immunity. The court declined to rule on the first issue, which remains unclear, and ruled that the officers did have qualified immunity. The court found that its decision in Hartman v. Moore [opinion], which dealt with retaliatory prosecution, created uncertainty in the area of retaliatory arrests:
Hartman injected uncertainty into the law governing retaliatory arrests, particularly in light of Hartman's rationale and the close relationship between retaliatory arrest and prosecution claims. This uncertainty was only confirmed by subsequent appellate decisions that disagreed over whether the reasoning in Hartman applied similarly to retaliatory arrests. Accordingly, when Howards was arrested it was not clearly established that an arrest supported by probable cause could give rise to a First Amendment violation. Petitioners Reichle and Doyle are thus entitled to qualified immunity.Justice Thomas announced the opinion of the court. Justice Ginsburg filed a concurring opinion, joined by Justice Breyer. Justice Kagan took no part in the case.
The Supreme Court granted certiorari in the case in December and heard arguments [JURIST reports] in March. Monday's ruling overturns the decision [text] of the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, holding that the First Amendment claim is not barred and that petitioners are not entitled to qualified immunity on the First Amendment claim.