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Does Probable Cause Trump the First Amendment; the Supreme Court Takes the Fifth

When the Supreme Court accepted review in Reichle v. Howards, it seemed the stars had aligned for a definitive ruling on the question; does probable cause bar First Amendment retaliatory arrest claims? So much for celestial alignment! The opinion issued this morning is not the big bang law enforcement was looking for. Instead, the court avoided the issue, finding that the Tenth Circuit erred in denying defendants qualified immunity due to the lack of clear precedent in that circuit.

So where does that leave law enforcement in the Ninth Circuit? In 2006 the Ninth Circuit held that probable cause does not bar retaliation claims. In light of this, courts in this circuit are unlikely to dismiss claims resulting from arrests made on weak probable cause, so long as plaintiff has some evidence to support the retaliation element of the claim. Where strong probable cause exists, the outcome is less certain. In a 2008 opinion the Ninth Circuit held that cases with strong probable cause but weak evidence of retaliatory motive fell outside circuit precedent and are properly dismissed. This suggests that the law has not developed sufficiently to provide adequate direction to law enforcement officers acting under those circumstances, making qualified immunity appropriate.