Unlawful Arrest Case Going to a Jury Trial

aflc_prolife-behindbars-whiteLate on Friday, April 20, a federal judge sitting in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan issued a ruling in the case of Kimberly Thames, a pro-life demonstrator who was unlawfully arrested, sending the case to a jury.

The American Freedom Law Center (AFLC) is representing Thames.  The Thomas More Society of Chicago is also assisting with this important case.

On August 27, 2016, Kimberley Thames went to the Northland abortion center on Ford Road in Westland, Michigan to be a witness for life.  She silently prayed on the public sidewalks surrounding the facility.  She had no weapons with her.  She never does.  All she had with her that day was a Rosary and a pro-life sign.

As she would often do, Thames engaged the Northland security guard on duty that day, assuring him that she was praying for him as well as the unborn babies.  She also told the guard that she would pray he would find another job—a job that would protect life, not defend death.

The guard appeared agitated by Thames’ suggestion, claiming that his job was “fine” and that he was there to protect everyone.  Thames told the guard that she was happy to hear that he would protect her as well.  She had never heard this from the other guards.

Shortly after this conversation, Thames departed the area momentarily to use the restroom at a nearby store.  Upon returning to Northland, Thames noticed several police cruisers and the security guard talking to a uniformed officer.  Thames had no idea why they were there.

One of the officers approached Thames and asked her if she told the security guard that she was going to bomb the clinic.  Thames emphatically rejected such an absurd accusation.

Unbeknownst to Thames, a Northland employee and the security guard called 911 and made a false claim that Thames was threatening to bomb the Northland facility.  At the scene, the security guard told the officers that Thames stated, “I prophesy bombs, I prophesy bombs. There is going to be a bombing in the near future.”  Thames never made such a statement.

Based solely on the absurd and false accusation of the security guard, the police arrested Thames, who then spent 49 hours in the City jail until a detective finally released her after reading the report and concluding, “I do not see a direct threat where Kimberly threatened to bomb the clinic.”

Thames sued the City and the four arresting officers for violating her civil rights under the First (freedom of speech and free exercise of religion), Fourth (unlawful search and seizure), and Fourteenth (equal protection) Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

In his ruling on Friday, the judge held that all four City of Westland police officers who were involved in the arrest must stand trial for the Fourth Amendment violations and that two police officers must stand trial for the First and Fourteenth Amendment violations.

The judge ruled, in relevant part, on the Fourth Amendment issue as follows:

The evidence suggests that Defendant Officers did not consider the statement to be a true threat as they did not direct evacuation of the clinic, did not request the assistance of a bomb squad, did not request the assistance of a bomb sniffing dog, did not search the clinic for a bomb, did not search the surrounding area for a bomb, did not search the adjacent parking lot for a bomb, did not search the dumpster for a bomb, and did not impound Thames’ vehicle for fear that a bomb might be planted in it. . . .

[A] jury question exists as to whether a reasonable officer on the scene could have believed that her arrest was lawful.  Also, all four of the arresting officers are potentially liable for the arrest.  Sergeant Brooks ordered the arrest.  Officer Gatti investigated the complaint at the scene.  Officer Soulliere questioned Thames, placed her in handcuffs, searched her vehicle, transported her to the police station and initiated her booking.  Officer Tardif took the security guard’s written statement.  Under Sixth Circuit precedent, those police officers present at the scene of a wrongful arrest who have the opportunity and means to prevent the harm from occurring, may be liable under § 1983 for failing to intervene to prevent the wrongful arrest.

In her motion, Thames presented evidence of the arresting officers’ animus against pro-lifers in support of her claims arising under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.  As a result, the judge ruled on these claims as follows:

Based on this evidence of animus against pro-lifers, Thames has raised a genuine issue of material fact in support of her First Amendment retaliatory arrest claim.  As previously discussed, the right to be free from retaliation for expressive religious activity is clearly established; thus, Officer Gatti and Sergeant Brooks are not entitled to qualified immunity on Thames’ First Amendment retaliatory arrest claim. . . .  Based on this record, there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Officers Gatti and Sergeant Brooks arrested Thames for her prolife activity, and not because she made a “true threat.”  Significantly, Defendants failed to evacuate the abortion clinic or make any meaningful attempt to locate a bomb. . . .

Just as with Thames’ First Amendment retaliatory arrest claim, the law was clearly established that the police could not arrest a peaceful speaker engaged in protected speech on a public sidewalk. . . .  Accordingly, the arresting officers are not entitled to qualified immunity on Thames’ equal protection claim.

AFLC Co-Founder and Senior Counsel Robert Muise commented,

The judge’s ruling is significant in at least two respects.  First, our client’s meritorious case is now heading to a jury, which will allow us to seek significant monetary damages for the pain and suffering these officers inflicted.  And second, the judge’s ruling establishes important legal precedent for future pro-life cases.  Too often these cases are dismissed because the court finds that the arresting officers are entitled to qualified immunity.  Here, to deny the officers this defense, the judge had to conclude that the officers are liable for violating clearly established rights of which a reasonable person would have known, which he did, thereby sending the case to a jury.

No trial date has been set.