Yakima police violated a man’s free speech rights when they arrested him during a traffic stop in retaliation for arguing and what one officer termed “running his mouth,” a federal appeals court ruled Friday.
The 2-1 ruling by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reverses a lower court decision and orders a trial in the case.
Police arrested Eddie Ford on July 17, 2007, on a noise ordinance violation. He was acquitted in municipal court and filed suit against the city and the two officers involved, claiming they arrested him in retaliation for exercising his First Amendment rights to free speech.
Ford had stepped out of his vehicle at a stoplight and approached the police car behind him to ask why he was being followed so closely. Officer Ryan Urlacher ordered Ford back to his car, then pulled him over as they proceeded through the intersection, according to court documents.
Urlacher arrested Ford on a noise ordinance violation after Ford again stepped out of his vehicle and argued with the officer, claiming the stop was racially motivated.
The officer had repeatedly warned Ford he would be arrested if he didn’t cooperate, otherwise he would receive a ticket. Ford ultimately stopped arguing, but Urlacher arrested him anyway, telling Ford his mouth and attitude had talked him into jail, according to court documents.
U.S. District Judge Lonny Suko in Eastern Washington dismissed Ford’s lawsuit against the city of Yakima, Urlacher and Lt. Nolan Wentz, who also responded to the scene. Suko ruled that the manner in which Ford confronted Urlacher, not merely his language, led the officer to reasonably conclude the arrest was warranted.
The higher court reversed that decision Friday, finding that officers booked and jailed Ford in retaliation for his protected speech. That move violates Ford’s right to be free of retaliatory arrest, even if the officers had probable cause to arrest Ford for violating the noise ordinance, the ruling said.
Circuit Judge Consuelo M. Callahan dissented from the majority opinion, saying the court failed to appreciate that a person’s right to free speech is different after he or she has been detained by police.
“This case raises an issue of first impression,” Callahan wrote. “It is not a case of retaliatory arrest.”