Federal appeals panel rejects claim of man unhappy with police response

Friday, April 28, 2000

The city of Wheeling, Ill., and its police force did not violate the free-petition rights of a man whose version of events police rejected during several disputes with neighbors, a federal appeals panel has ruled.

Eyrle S. Hilton IV had a rough time getting along with several neighbors in an apartment complex in the blue-collar district of Wheeling after a neighbor reported that Hilton beat his own Rottweiler with a baseball bat.

Over several years, Hilton was arrested 15 times on a variety of charges, including disorderly conduct, battery and noise violations. The police charged Hilton with these offenses after neighbors called in and complained about his conduct. Hilton alleged that the police were not evenhanded in their treatment because they did not arrest his neighbors when he called to complain about some of their actions.

For instance, Hilton complained to the police that he was the victim of “verbal harassment” after a neighbor called him “an idiot.”

Hilton sued in February 1999, claiming that the police had violated his constitutional right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. He also alleged that the city and its police officers had violated the equal-protection clause.

The city countered that the freedom to petition the government does not include the right to have police handle a complaint in a particular way.

In August 1999, U.S. District Judge Charles P. Kocoras agreed, dismissing Hilton’s claims.

On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed in Hilton v. City of Wheeling.

“The right [to petition the government] has never been understood to be a right to police assistance, or for that matter to any governmental assistance, services, or largesse,” Judge Richard Posner wrote for the unanimous panel.

“So while the government may not interfere with the right to petition … it need not grant the petition, no matter how meritorious it is,” Posner wrote in the panel’s April 20 opinion.

“Although we cannot find a case on the point (there are few cases construing the right-to-petition clause), we think it plain that the right is merely a right to petition the appropriate government entity, in this case the local prosecutor rather than the police on the beat,” the appeals panel wrote.

Mark Smolens, attorney for the city, said the petition claim in this case was “bizarre.” “Mr. Hilton tried to fashion a freedom-of-petition claim by stating that every time the police showed up to his house over a complaint, they accepted his neighbors’ word over his own,” he said.

Richard Grossman, Hilton’s attorney, said that he did advance a “novel theory of the right to petition.”

“Every single time my client contacted the police, the police took no action against his neighbors and, many times, took action against my client,” Grossman said. He said the police officers’ actions deprived his client of the ability to seek a redress of grievances.

However, Smolens said, “there was no cognizable petition claim in this case, because he was petitioning the wrong people. Hilton should have petitioned the local district attorney rather than the police.

“If Hilton could have alleged that the police had fabricated information or had hid information that Hilton needed to prosecute his neighbors, then he might have stated a claim,” Smolens said.

“The police did their job,” he added, noting that “the police came out to his house over 80 times over the past seven years.”

Grossman said his client had not yet decided whether to appeal. He said that his client might have a better chance under his equal-protection claim than his petition claim.