Ruling: Man arrested for cursing at meeting should get day in court

Monday, February 5, 2007

DETROIT — A federal appeals court on Feb. 2 reinstated a lawsuit filed by a Flint-area man who was arrested for cursing during a public meeting.

The Ohio-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a 2005 U.S. District Court decision that held Montrose Township police officer Stephen Robinson had probable cause to arrest Thomas Leonard, who used the word “goddamn” while addressing the township board in 2002.

“It cannot be seriously contended that any reasonable peace officer, or citizen, for that matter, would believe that mild profanity while peacefully advocating a political position could constitute a criminal act,” the three-judge panel wrote.

Leonard attended the meeting with his wife, Sarah, who owns a repair and towing company that had an exclusive towing contract with the township until 2000. The couple was involved in a controversy over the contract and sued the township and its police department in Genesee County Circuit Court over alleged misuse of power.

Sarah Leonard first addressed the board on several topics, including why the board didn’t award her company several repair contracts despite being the lowest bidder. Thomas Leonard then addressed the board, accusing the board of “screwing” his family and saying, “That’s why you’re in a goddamn lawsuit.”

Robinson arrested Leonard and took him to the police station, where he was charged with disorderly conduct and using obscene language. He was held for an hour, released, and the charges were dismissed a month later.

Leonard sued Robinson in federal court in 2003, seeking at least $25,000 in damages. He claimed the arrest violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable seizure and in a later motion claimed his First Amendment rights to free speech had been violated.

The court later granted Robinson’s motion to dismiss the case. The police officer had argued that he was entitled to “qualified immunity” on the constitutional allegations and that he had probable cause to arrest Leonard.

The 6th Circuit, however, rejected this argument.

“We therefore hold that no reasonable officer would find that probable cause exists to arrest a recognized speaker at a chaired public assembly based solely on the content of his speech (albeit vigorous or blasphemous) unless and until the speaker is determined to be out of order by the individual chairing the assembly,” the panel said. “Any peace officer in attendance can reasonably be expected to restrain herself from arresting speakers based upon what they say while advocating their political positions in an orderly fashion. … Therefore, because Leonard’s arrest was not supported by probable cause, it was error for the district court to grant Robinson qualified immunity.”

Ralph Chapa, a partner in the suburban Detroit law firm representing Robinson, said he was disappointed with the appeals court’s ruling and that his firm was considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We think the lower court was correct and based upon sound reasoning,” Chapa said.

Glen Lenhoff, the Flint attorney representing Leonard, said if there was no appeal or request for a review by the entire appeals court, the case would go back for trial.

“All our client did was get up at a public meeting and express himself vigorously, and he was arrested for it,” Lenhoff said. “This shows the First Amendment of the United States Constitution protects people in this kind of arrest.”

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