Appeals court backs First Amendment right to criticize police

A Midwestern federal appeals court has affirmed a lower court’s ruling protecting Americans’ First Amendment right to criticize police.

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals’ judgment on Monday also prevented Minnesota police officers from shielding themselves from lawsuits charging violations of constitutional rights.

The majority of the three-judge panel said police officers lacked probable cause to arrest Brian Hoyland for obstructing the legal process, and the court rejected the officers’ claims of “qualified immunity” in defense of their error. Qualified immunity refers to the legal protection from civil liability given to public officials who do not violate an individual’s “clearly established” constitutional or statutory rights.

“Police officers have a tough job,” wrote Judge Bobby Shepherd in the 2-1 opinion. “They must confront dangerous situations and make difficult decisions in short time frames. This is why we offer the protection of qualified immunity — to insulate officers from the constant threat of litigation while serving and safeguarding their fellow citizens. But to receive that protection, we must find as a matter of law that the officers acted within the confines of the Constitution … Looking at the facts of this case, we cannot hold as a matter of law that the officers acted constitutionally.”

The dispute involves Hoyland who “awoke one evening to the sights and sounds of police officers standing with guns drawn in front of his home,” as Shepherd wrote in the appeals court’s opinion.

“He saw his wife, a handicapped woman, standing in the driveway with her arms raised in the air,” Shepherd wrote. “He then heard someone yell ‘shoot’ or ‘shooting.’ Hoyland quickly turned on the porch light, opened the front door, stood in his doorway, and screamed at the officers, who stood 30-40 feet away. The officers ordered him back inside. He remained in his doorway and approximately thirty seconds after he opened the door to his home, an officer declared him to be under arrest.”

Hoyland used his phone to record the officers when standing on his porch, and “within seconds” an officer yelled, “Drop the camera!” Hoyland screamed in response, “You are in my yard!” and informed the officers that his wife was handicapped.

Upon arresting Hoyland, the police stood in his yard and arrested his wife, who had been traveling with a man in a Corvette who the officers had suspected of drag racing. Even though the driver had no outstanding warrants, the…

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