Sarah Molina v. Daniel Book, No. 21-1830 (8th Cir. 2023)Annotate this Case
Officers in an armored police vehicle shot tear gas at three people near the scene of a protest in downtown St. Louis. The district court concluded that all three had a First Amendment retaliation claim.
The Eighth Circuit affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded. The court agreed that one Plaintiff has a valid First Amendment retaliation claim, but qualified immunity shields the officers from the claims brought by the others. Two of the Plaintiffs claimed that the First Amendment covers what they did, which was to observe and record police conduct during the St. Louis protest. The court wrote that even if it were to assume they are correct, observing and recording police-citizen interactions was not a clearly established First Amendment right in 2015. Further, in regard to Plaintiffs’ peaceful-assembly theory. The court reasoned even if the officers “unreasonably believed” that the group was refusing to comply with their earlier directions to disperse, their official orders—not retaliatory animus—caused them to use the tear gas.
However, in regard to the third Plaintiff, the court explained at this stage, there is enough evidence to establish the “personal involvement” of everyone in the armored vehicle. To be sure, Plaintiff could not see who launched the tear gas canister. But with multiple “officers present,” the jury could find that each one of them participated in the decision or that one did it “while the others failed to intervene.” Under these circumstances, the claims against the individual officers can proceed.
Court Description: [Stras, Author, with Benton and Shepherd, Circuit Judges] Civil case - Civil rights. St. Louis police officers were entitled to qualified immunity on claims by two "legal observers" that officers tear-gassed them in retaliation for the observers exercising their First Amendment rights; with respect to the third plaintiff, who claimed that officers shot him with a tear gas cannister after he shouted at them to leave the park area, his criticism of the officers, even with profanity, was protected speech and there was no probable cause, arguable or otherwise, to take any action against him; while plaintiff could not identify which officer inside an armored vehicle launched the canister, a jury could find that each one of them participated in the decision or that one did it while the others failed to intervene; however, one defendant, Lieutenant Dodge, had no personal involvement in the violation, and he was entitled to summary judgment. Judge Benton, concurring in part and dissenting in part.