06/05/2012

Secret Service can't be sued for 'retaliatory arrest' claim, say Justices

Supreme Court addresses issue of law enforcement liability when arrest made based upon probable cause

By Mark Sherman
Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Monday that two Secret Service agents are shielded from a lawsuit filed by a man they arrested after a confrontation with then-Vice President Dick Cheney over the Iraq War. The service protects the president and those close to him.

The 8-0 decision comes in a case that began with the arrest of Steven Howards after a chance encounter with Cheney in 2006. Howards claimed he was arrested in retaliation for the anti-war views he expressed.

The agents and the Obama administration asked the court for broad protection against claims of retaliatory arrests. The justices did not grant that wish.

Justice Clarence Thomas said in his opinion for the court that the agents could not be sued in this instance because of uncertainty about the law concerning such arrests.

The decision reversed a ruling by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver to let the lawsuit to go forward.

Howards, of Golden, Colo., was detained by Cheney's security detail after he told Cheney of his opposition to the Iraq War. Howards also touched Cheney on the shoulder, then denied doing so under questioning. The appeals court said the inconsistency gave the agents reason to arrest Howards. Even so, it said Howards could sue the agents for violating his rights.

The main legal issue in the case was whether agents, and other law enforcement officers, should be shielded from rights lawsuits when they have a good reason, or probable cause, to make an arrest. The high court, in a case called Hartman v. Moore, had previously ruled out damages claims for retaliatory prosecutions when there was probable cause to bring criminal charges in the first place. Unlike the Denver court, some appeals courts already have extended that rule to retaliatory arrests.

The justices did not resolve that conflict Monday. "To be sure, we do not suggest that Hartman's rule in fact extends to arrests," Thomas said.

Instead, Thomas said the divergent rulings themselves are evidence that the law in this area is not settled. As a result, the agents cannot be held responsible for violating Howards' rights, even if the arrest had been made in retaliation for what he said.

Justice Elena Kagan did not take part in the case. 

Copyright 2012 Associated Press

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