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On November 26, 2018, the Supreme Court heard argument in Nieves v. Bartlett, a case considering the merit of retaliatory arrest claims in the presence of probable cause for arrest.

In 2014, Russell Bartlett was arrested by two police officers, Sergeant Nieves and Trooper Weight, during an outdoor party that was part of the annual “Arctic Man” festival held in Alaska’s Hoodoo Mountains.  Bartlett, who appeared intoxicated, approached Trooper Weight, who had been speaking to a minor regarding suspected underage drinking, and loudly demanded that Weight stop. When Trooper Weight pushed Bartlett back to create space between the two men, Nieves, who had observed the contact, ran over and a struggle ensued.  The officers subdued and arrested Bartlett, who was later released from detention without injury.  Although the state ultimately declined to prosecute Bartlett on charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, the prosecutor indicated his belief in the existence of probable cause for that arrest.

Bartlett filed suit against the officers in federal district court, claiming false arrest, excessive force, malicious prosecution, and retaliatory arrest. The district court granted summary judgment to Sergeant Nieves and Trooper Weight on qualified immunity grounds, but the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed that judgment as to the retaliatory arrest claim and remanded the case.  Under circuit precedent, the Court concluded, “an individual has a right to be free from retaliatory police action, even if probable cause existed for the action.” The Supreme Court granted the officers’ subsequent petition for certiorari, however, to address whether probable cause defeats a First Amendment retaliatory-arrest claim under the civil rights statute 42 U.S.C. § 1983.  

To discuss the case, we have Lisa Soronen, Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center.