Law School Case Brief
Nieves v. Bartlett - 139 S. Ct. 1715 (2019)
If the plaintiff establishes the absence of probable cause with respect to a retaliatory arrest claim, the plaintiff must show that the retaliation was a substantial or motivating factor behind the arrest, and, if that showing is made, the defendant can prevail only by showing that the arrest would have been initiated without respect to retaliation.
Respondent Russell Bartlett was arrested by police officers Luis Nieves and Bryce Weight for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest during “Arctic Man,” a raucous winter sports festival held in a remote part of Alaska. According to Sergeant Nieves, he was speaking with a group of attendees when a seemingly intoxicated Bartlett started shouting at them not to talk to the police. When Nieves approached him, Bartlett began yelling at the officer to leave. Rather than escalate the situation, Nieves left. Bartlett disputes that account, claiming that he was not drunk at that time and did not yell at Nieves. Minutes later, Trooper Weight says, 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 saw the confrontation and 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 to comply because of a back injury. After he was handcuffed, Bartlett claims that Nieves said “bet you wish you would have talked to me now.”
Bartlett sued under 42 U. S. C. § 1983, claiming that the officers violated his First Amendment rights by arresting him in retaliation for his speech--i.e., his initial refusal to speak with Nieves and his intervention in Weight's discussion with the minor. The District Court granted summary judgment for the officers, holding that the existence of probable cause to arrest Bartlett precluded his claim. The Ninth Circuit reversed. It held that probable cause does not defeat a retaliatory arrest claim and concluded that Bartlett's affidavit about what Nieves allegedly said after the arrest could enable Bartlett to prove that the officers' desire to chill his speech was a but-for cause of the arrest.
Was Bartlett’s claim that the officers violated his First Amendment rights by arresting him in retaliation for his speech meritorious?
The United States Supreme Court held that Bartlett’s claim that two police officers retaliated against him for his protected First Amendment speech by arresting him for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest during a winter sports festival could not survive summary judgment. The only evidence of retaliatory animus identified by the court of appeals was Bartlett’s affidavit alleging that one of the officers said “bet you wish you would have talked to me now.” But that allegation said nothing about what motivated the second officer, who had no knowledge of Bartlett’s prior run-in with the first officer. In any event, Bartlett’s retaliatory arrest claim against both officers could not succeed because they had probable cause to arrest him. The existence of probable cause to arrest Bartlett defeated his First Amendment claim as a matter of law.
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