Wednesday, September 16, 2015
Federal Judge Finds Arrest for Obscenity Violates First Amendment - - - and Denies Prosecutorial Immunity
In her decision from the bench in Barboza v. D'Agata, federal district judge Cathy Seibel has not only found that the arrest of William Barboza violated the First Amendment but has granted summary judgment against a state prosecutor for a First Amendment violation and allowed a claim against the village to proceed.
After Barboza received a speeding ticket from Liberty, New York, he not only paid the fine but returned the form with "Liberty" in "Liberty Town Court" crossed off and replaced with "tyranny" and with the phrase "fuck your shitty town bitches" written in all caps and underlined. (photo here). An assistant district attorney, Robert Zangala, made a decision that the statement constituted "aggravated harassment" under NY Penal Law 240.30 (1) (a). While New York courts had rejected facial challenges to the subsection, New York's highest court had found the statute unconstitutional as applied in a 2003 case in which the defendant had "left five voice messages on the Village of Ossining Parking Violations Bureau's answering machine in which the defendant rained invective on two village employees, wished them and their family ill health, and complained of their job performance as well as the tickets that she had received." Judge Seibel found that decision was "on all fours" with the present case.
Importantly, the prosecutor not only charged Barboza, but participated in the plan to arrest Barboza when he came to court about the speeding ticket; a judge having ordered Barboza to appear. While Judge Seibel found that the prosecutor was entitled to absolute immunity for the decision to charge Barboza, he was not entitled to absolute immunity for the decision to have him arrested. Moreover, Judge Seibel found that the prosecutor was not entitled to qualified immunity. However, she did find that the police officers who actually made the arrest were entitled to qualified immunity.
Regarding the reasonableness of their actions, Judge Seibel's discussion about the differences between the police officers executing the arrest and the prosecutor is illuminating. She stated that the precedent "distinguishing police officers from lawyers, which helps the officers, hurts Zangala," the prosecutor.
If cops are not expected to know what a lawyer would learn or intuit from researching case law, an assistant district attorney certainly is. And there surely is nothing unfair or impracticable about holding a trained lawyer to the standard of trained lawyer. While it is reasonable for a police officer to rely in certain circumstances on the legal advice of a prosecutor, the prosecutor himself must be held to the standard of a trained lawyer.
And given that the assistant district attorney was a "trained lawyer," she held that he is "not saved by his getting approval from the District Attorney in the way that the officers are saved by complying and getting approval from an assistant district attorney." Indeed, the prosecutor's actions are not reasonable "given that he had the time to do the relatively simple legal research but did not." Additionally, Judge Seibel intimates that the prosecutor may have known that the arrest suffered from First Amendment infirmities and simply chose to continue.
Finally, Judge Seibel decided that the claim against the village could proceed on the issues of whether there was a sufficient pattern of similar violations, the obviousness of the risk of a violation (under a single incident theory), and whether the village's failure to train caused the arrest.
She also directed the parties to discuss settlement.