Justia Summary

Bartlett was arrested for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest during a winter sports festival held in Alaska. Officer Nieves claimed he was speaking with a group when a seemingly-intoxicated Bartlett started shouting not to talk to the police. When Nieves approached him, Bartlett began yelling at the officer to leave. Nieves left. Bartlett claims that he was not drunk and did not yell at Nieves. Minutes later, Trooper Weight claimed, Bartlett approached him in an aggressive manner while he was questioning a minor, stood between Weight and the teenager, and yelled with slurred speech that Weight should not speak with the minor. When Bartlett stepped toward Weight, the officer pushed him back. Nieves initiated an arrest. When Bartlett was slow to comply, the officers forced him to the ground. Bartlett denies being aggressive and claims that he was slow because of a back injury. Bartlett claims that Nieves said, “bet you wish you would have talked to me.” Bartlett sued under 42 U.S.C. 1983, claiming that the arrest was retaliation for his speech.

The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit: Because there was probable cause to arrest Bartlett, his retaliatory arrest claim failed as a matter of law. Plaintiffs in retaliatory prosecution cases must prove that the decision to press charges was objectively unreasonable because it was not supported by probable cause. First Amendment retaliatory arrest claims are subject to the same no-probable-cause requirement. The inquiry is complex because protected speech is often a “wholly legitimate consideration” for officers when deciding whether to make an arrest. A purely subjective approach would compromise the even-handed application of the law and would encourage officers to minimize communication during arrests. The common law torts of false imprisonment and malicious prosecution, in existence at the time of 42 U.S.C. 1983’s enactment suggest that the presence of probable cause should generally defeat a First Amendment retaliatory arrest claim. The no-probable-cause requirement should not apply when a plaintiff presents objective evidence that he was arrested when otherwise similarly situated individuals not engaged in the same sort of protected speech had not been.

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