South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson joined a coalition of 15 states and the District of Columbia in filing a brief urging the United States Supreme Court to protect police from frivolous claims of false arrest.
The brief urges the court to overrule a lower court and hold that a police officer cannot be subject to a retaliatory-arrest lawsuit if the officer had probable cause to make the arrest. The brief explains that a contrary ruling would constrain officers’ ability to protect the public.
“Police officers have a hard enough job without having to worry about being sued for arresting someone when there’s probable cause to make that arrest,” Wilson said in a release Tuesday. “We’re urging the Supreme Court to overturn this lower court ruling because not doing so would make all of us less safe.”
The multistate amicus brief comes in Nieves v. Bartlett, a case in which a man sued two Alaska state troopers who had arrested him for disorderly conduct. In that case, an Alaska man argued he was arrested for telling a potentially underage teen not to talk to the officers. Although there was probable cause for the arrest and Bartlett admitted he was drunk (although not otherwise violating the law), he argued the troopers were primarily retaliating against the exercise of his First Amendment rights. The charges were later dropped.
The Supreme Court will decide whether a plaintiff may sue police officers for retaliatory arrest if the officer had probable cause to arrest the plaintiff. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Bartlett’s favor and the officers appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.
The states’ brief argues that a decision upholding the Ninth Circuit would inhibit effective policing and encourage a flood of lawsuits claiming retaliatory arrest. They argue the change would chill the willingness of officers to make arrests, even when based on probable cause and when necessary to protect the public safety. The brief also insists states have effective administrative and disciplinary procedures in place, including civilian complaint review boards, to address misconduct by officers and to protect those interests.
Justices will hear oral arguments in the case in its next term, which begins in October.