Police Chief May Be Personally Liable for Arresting a Subordinate Officer in Retaliation for His Politics

By Erica Shelley Nelson and Brennen Johnson

schemingIn Williams v. City of Alexander, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit affirmed a decision to deny qualified immunity to an Arkansas Police Chief who allegedly had a subordinate officer arrested in retaliation for supporting the City’s mayor. Although qualified immunity usually protects public officials from personal liability for actions carried out in their official roles, the Court determined that the Chief could not assert qualified immunity for withholding exculpatory information in an arrest warrant of an officer as a means of retaliating against the officer’s political alignment.

Brad Williams worked as a police officer for the City of Alexander under Horace Walters, the Police Chief. Conflict arose between Williams and the Chief due to Williams’ support of the City’s mayor. In 2011, the Chief told Williams that the Mayor and his constituents were “a bunch of cockroaches,” that “the gloves were coming off,” that “he was an atomic bomb and he was going to destroy Williams,” and that he had Williams “in his crosshairs.” Shortly after, the Chief was relieved of duty by the Mayor, but was reinstated at the behest of the City Council. At the Chief’s reinstatement hearing, Williams testified against the Chief, but he was reinstated anyway.

Later that year, the city bookkeeper noted that Williams had cashed two payroll checks for the same period. A year earlier, in September 2010, Williams had been issued a replacement paycheck in lieu of the original that he had lost. But in August of 2011, the check resurfaced. Williams cashed it without realizing that it was the check that he had reported as lost. The bookkeeper brought this error to Williams’ attention.  Together with the city council, they agreed that it was not intentional and the issue would be resolved if Williams repaid the money. Williams did so two days later at a city council meeting where the Chief was present.

After a month passed, the Chief asked another officer to retrieve a set of borrowed blue lights from Williams and install them on a department patrol car. The other officer did so. Then, in early 2012, a magistrate judge issued a warrant for Williams’ arrest, based on a sworn affidavit from the Chief that stated (1) that Williams stole the lights and (2) that Williams had stolen funds from the city by cashing the second check. Williams was arrested and spent the night in jail before prosecutors dismissed the charges the following day.

Subsequently, Williams brought his lawsuit against the Chief claiming that the arrest violated his Fourth and First Amendment rights. Specifically, he claimed that the arrest was illegally carried out without probable cause and that it was retaliatory for his political support of the Mayor and for his testimony against the Chief at the reinstatement hearing. The Chief argued that he was immune from the lawsuit because his position granted him qualified immunity.

Regarding Williams’ Fourth Amendment claim, the Court determined that the affidavit contained truthful information that would provide the probable cause necessary for a legal arrest, but it also determined that the Chief had withheld information that would have destroyed that probable cause if it were included. Furthermore, it concluded that the seemingly intentional nature of the omission, combined with the Chief’s prior threats to Williams, supported an inference that the warrant was issued as retaliation for Williams’ support of the Mayor. The Court, addressing the Chief’s claim to qualified immunity, explained that qualified immunity does not protect public officials from liability for violating clearly established constitutional rights. Summarizing its findings and disposition, the Court stated:

The facts viewed in the light most favorable to Williams establish that [Chief] Walters purposefully lied and omitted information from the affidavit so that he could have Williams arrested and thereby exact revenge on Williams for supporting the mayor. The Fourth Amendment right of citizens not to be arrested without probable cause is indeed clearly established. Furthermore, it is clearly established that the Fourth Amendment requires a truthful factual showing sufficient to constitute probable cause in a sworn affidavit. It is also clearly established that a citizen has a right to exercise First Amendment freedoms without facing retaliation from government officials. Because a reasonable official would understand that including false information in and omitting relevant information from an affidavit in an effort to punish someone for supporting one’s political opponent would constitute a violation of clearly established constitutional rights, Walters is not entitled to qualified immunity.

The denial of the Chief’s claim to qualified immunity means that Williams can pursue his claims against the Chief at trial. Therefore, even if Williams fails to prove his First Amendment retaliation claim, he is likely to succeed on his Fourth Amendment unlawful arrest claim.

This case presents a particularly malicious, to the point of almost being farcical, set of facts.  A qualified immunity defense is a challenging hurdle to overcome. There is no question the Court was persuaded by the fact that the Chief and Williams had a long history of “bad blood” between them as a result of Williams’ support of the Mayor.  Moreover, going so far as to have his own employee arrested is beyond the realm of all reason.  This case is a good reminder that while the qualified immunity defense is robust, it will not insulate public officials from conduct that clearly violates the Constitution.