Unconstitutional for Police to Detain California Man for Being “Argumentative”

Law-enforcement officers showed up at the house of Merritt Sharp, looking for his son, for whom the officers had an arrest warrant.  They mistook Sharp for his son, arrested Sharp, and put him in the back of their squad car.  Sharp was livid, “loudly swearing” and “threatening to sue them.”

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A few minutes later, the officers realized their mistake, but they continued to detain him.  Sharp remained furious (understandably so).  At this point, one of the officers said to Sharp, “If you weren’t being so argumentative, I’d probably just put you on the curb.”  (We’re assuming that there was recorded audio of the interaction.)  Eventually, Sharp was let go.

After the dust settled, Sharp followed through with his threat: he sued.  He claimed that the officers violated his constitutional rights by wrongfully arresting him in violation of the Fourth Amendment.  He also claimed that the officers violated his First Amendment rights by refusing to let him go once they knew they had the wrong guy because Sharp was being “argumentative.”  The officers argued that they did not continue to detain Sharp because he was being argumentative.  But the Ninth Circuit wasn’t buying it—the officer’s statement pretty well established their reasons for keeping Sharp under arrest.

The closer issue in the case was the question of qualified immunity, which is a legal doctrine that says that when law-enforcement officers violate someone’s constitutional rights, the officers can only be held liable if they violate “clearly established” law.  Well in 2013, the Ninth Circuit decided a similar case in which a police officer arrested a motorist for “running his mouth,” when the officer should have just issued him a traffic citation.  There too, the Court found a violation of the motorist’s First Amendment rights.  That case was decided less than a year before Sharp’s mistaken arrest, thereby putting officers “on notice” that they cannot treat someone differently for simply being argumentative.

Case: Sharp v. Cty. of Orange, No. 15-56146 (9th Cir. Sept. 19, 2017) (opinion here)

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