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Reichle v. Howards

Summarized by: 

Date Filed: June 4, 2012
Case #: 11-262
Thomas, J., delivered the Court's opinion, which Roberts, C. J., Scalia, Kennedy, Alito, and Sotomayor, JJ., joined. Ginsburg, J., filed a concurring opinion, which Breyer, J., joined. Kagan, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Full Text Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/11pdf/11-262.pdf

Civil Rights § 1983: Government officials are entitled to qualified immunity from civil damages liability “unless the official violated a statutory or constitutional right that was clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct.”

Petitioners, members of the Vice President’s Secret Service detail, arrested Respondent after he confronted the Vice President regarding the war in Iraq and contacted his shoulder. After the charges against him were dismissed, Respondent brought suit against Petitioners under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that the agents had violated his Fourth Amendment right against unlawful search and seizure, and his First Amendment rights to free speech.

The district court denied Petitioners’ motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity, stating that there were issues of fact to be determined. On appeal, Petitioners argued that they had probable cause to arrest Respondent and that their status as Secret Service agents protecting the Vice President afforded them a higher level of immunity. The Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit rejected Respondent’s Fourth Amendment claim because the agents objectively had probable cause to arrest him, but the court refused to say that probable cause barred Respondent’s First Amendment retaliatory arrest claim.

The Supreme Court reversed and, citing several earlier opinions, explained that government officials are entitled to qualified immunity from civil damages liability “unless the official violated a statutory or constitutional right that was clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct.” Since there was no such clearly established right to protection from retaliatory arrest supported by probable cause, the Court held that the Secret Service agents were entitled to qualified immunity and refused to address whether such a right existed.