A case of alleged police harassment set new legal precedent for holding government officials accountable for violating the First Amendment.
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court’s ruling Tuesday, protecting police officers Lee Stevens and Jason Lindsey under qualified immunity, but acknowledging that their alleged actions against Mary Sause violated her First Amendment rights.
Sause alleged that Stevens and Lindsey harassed and humiliated her during an investigation of a noise complaint. After the officers demanded entry into her apartment, Sause held up a copy of the U.S. Constitution and said that she did not have to allow the officers entry. “That’s nothing, it’s just a piece of paper [that] doesn’t work here,” Lindsey replied.
The officers then told Sause that she was going to jail, though they did not give her a reason why. A nervous Sause asked if she could pray, and the officers said yes, but according to Sause they mocked her and then ordered her to stop praying.
Sause filed a lawsuit against the officers for violating her First Amendment rights, but the district court dismissed her case, stating that the officers were protected under qualified immunity.
Qualified immunity protects government officials from prosecution if prosecutors cannot prove with past court cases that the officials should have known that their actions violated a law. Sause appealed her case to the 10th Circuit, which upheld the lower court’s decision, but established a new legal precedent for future prosecution of government officials for committing acts similar to those of Stevens and Lindsey.
Stevens’ and Lindsey’s acquittal hinges on the unprecedented nature of their actions, given that there have been no other court cases that dealt with this kind of scenario, according to Hiram Sasser, Deputy Chief Counsel for the First Liberty Institute.
“If government officials cannot be held accountable for violating it, it literally is just a piece of paper,” Hiram said regarding Lindsey’s comment on the Constitution. “And it is no more, if government officials cannot be held accountable, it is no more beneficial than the old Soviet Union Constitution, which had grandiose rights written into it.”
Despite protection under qualified immunity, Stevens’ and Lindsey’s actions constitute violations of First Amendment rights, according to Circuit Judge Nancy Moritz in the official court opinion.
“We assume that the defendants violated Sause’s rights under the First Amendment when, according to Sause, they repeatedly mocked her, ordered her to stop praying so they could harass her, threatened her with arrest and public humiliation, insisted that she show them the scars from her double mastectomy, and then ‘appeared . . . disgust[ed]’ when she complied — ‘all over’ a mere noise complaint,” Moritz wrote.
As it stands, Stevens and Lindsey are protected by qualified immunity in this case because, until this Circuit court’s opinion, there was no case precedent that defined their actions as violations of the First Amendment. Now, whether or not Sause’s allegations are true, Mortiz’s court opinion removed any possibility of government officials receiving qualified immunity for ordering someone to cease praying in their own home. Any government official who commits acts similar to those of Stevens and Lindsey in the future will be prosecuted without protection by qualified immunity because of the precedent set by Moritz’s opinion.
Sause and her legal representation from First Liberty said they will continue to pursue legal action against Lindsey and Stevens.
“So, the more outrageous the conduct the easier it is to shield under qualified immunity? That can’t possibly be the real law,” Sasser said. “I know that’s essentially the 10th circuit said, but that can’t possibly be the real law, and so that’s why we want to seek some review.”
First Liberty will decide within a week as to whether they will pursue en banc review, in which the circuit court’s ruling would be reviewed by all of the judges in that circuit, or a Supreme Court review. Sause has until 14 days from Tuesday to file for an en banc review.
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