On July 22, 2014, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the Wilson v. Village of Los Lunas et al. [i], which serves as review of the law pertaining to arrests and retaliatory arrest. The relevant facts of Wilson, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
On July 13, 2009, Officer Walker stopped Mr. Wilson for a stop sign violation. She wrote him three citations, one for the stop sign violation and two more for lack of vehicle registration and proof of insurance. The parties dispute what happened during the stop.
According to Officer Walker, Mr. Wilson was agitated when she first approached his car, causing her to call for backup. Sergeant Taylor arrived as she was completing the paperwork. When the officers approached Mr. Wilson’s car to give him the citations, he was argumentative and more agitated. The officers ordered him to exit his car, and he refused. Sergeant Taylor reached into the vehicle to remove him, and he physically resisted. He struggled with both officers, knocking Officer Walker to the ground. The officers subdued and arrested him.
In contrast, Mr. Wilson contends he was calm and cooperative, and that Officer Walker was agitated from the beginning of the stop. He posits that after Sergeant Taylor arrived, one of the officer’s belt tapes recorded a conversation between the officers. During the conversation, Officer Walker inappropriately called Mr. Wilson names. When she gave him the citations, he complained to the officers about a prior experience with the police department. He disputes that he refused to exit the vehicle, and alleges Sergeant Taylor used inappropriate force to remove him. He also states he never intentionally struck either officer. [ii]
Wilson filed suit against the police department and officers and alleged that they violated his Fourth, Fourteenth and First Amendment rights. The district court granted summary judgment based on qualified immunity for the officers and Wilson appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Fourth Amendment Claim
Wilson based his Fourth Amendment claim on the premise that the officer issued him citations and was required to release him at that point, based on state law. As such, he asserts that the officer’s command to exit the car was unlawful because he should have been released with the citations, based upon New Mexico statute.
The Tenth Circuit noted that, according to the United States Supreme Court in Maryland v. Wilson, an officer may order occupants of a vehicle on a traffic stop to exit the vehicle. Further, the court noted that Wilson’s traffic stop was not completed because there is no evidence that he ever signed the citations. To the contrary, he began to argue with the officers when they tried to issue the citations. At that point they ordered him from the car which ultimately led to his arrest for battery on a peace officer and resisting arrest under New Mexico statute.
Thus, the court of appeals affirmed the grant of summary judgment for the officers on the Fourth Amendment claim because the officers had probable cause to arrest Wilson for battery and resisting.
The Fourteenth Amendment Claim
Wilson asserted that his arrest violated the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause because he was deprived of liberty without the due process created by New Mexico statute § 66-8-123, which provides for a person’s release after having signed a traffic citation.
The court noted that there was no assertion or evidence that Wilson ever signed the citations before he was arrested for other crimes, particularly battery and resisting. As such, the court of appeals affirmed the grant of summary judgment for the officers on the Fourteenth Amendment claim.
The First Amendment Claim
Wilson asserts that officers violated his First Amendment rights when the officers made a retaliatory arrest because he complained to them about his previous experience with the police.
The court noted that the law was not clearly established regarding retaliatory arrest. The court noted that while there is no Supreme Court case law regarding retaliatory arrest, there is a case involving retaliatory prosecution. In Hartman v. Moore [iii], the Supreme Court held that to “proceed with a claim for retaliatory prosecution, a plaintiff must plead and prove an absence of probable cause to support the charge.” [iv] Thus, since there is no definitive case regarding retaliatory arrest to put the officers on notice that there conduct might violate the constitution, the court affirmed the grant of qualified immunity for the officers. In Wilson, the court did not decide the legal elements of “retaliatory arrest” but rather just granted immunity for the officers.
Note: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.
[i] No. 13-2203 (10th Cir. Decided July 22, 2014)
[ii] Id. at 2
[iii] 547 U.S. 250 (2006)
[iv] Wilson at 16