Tuesday, March 13, 2018
A divided panel of the Eleventh Circuit ruled today that officers enjoyed qualified immunity against First and Fourth Amendment claims after arresting an Atlanta Ferguson protestor for wearing a "V for Vendetta" mask. The ruling ends the protestor's civil-rights action against the officers.
The case, Gates v. Khokhar, arose when officers arrested Austin Gates for wearing the mask during the Atlanta protest, and failing to take it off when so ordered by police. Officers charged Gates with a violation of Georgia's Anti-Mask statute, which, with certain exceptions not relevant here, makes it a misdemeanor for a person to "wear a mask, hood, or device by which any portion of the face is so hidden, concealed, or covered as to conceal the identity of the wearer" while he is "upon any public way or public property." Gates sued, arguing that his arrest violated the First and Fourth Amendments.
The Eleventh Circuit ruled that the officers enjoyed qualified immunity and dismissed Gates's federal constitutional claims. The court said that the Georgia Supreme Court had narrowed the Anti-Mask statute to cases where (1) the mask is worn with the intent to conceal the identity of the wearer and (2) the wearer of the mask "knows or reasonably should know that [his] conduct provokes a reasonable apprehension of intimidation, threats, or violence."
Under this standard, the court said that the officers didn't violate any clearly established First or Fourth Amendment right. In particular, the majority held that under the circumstances the officers could have reasonably believed that Gates wore the mask to cover his entire face and with an intent to intimidate, and that they therefore had "arguable" probable cause for his arrest. (The court reminded us that "arguable" probable cause--the standard for qualified immunity from a Fourth Amendment claim--is a pretty low standard and doesn't require an officer to have specific evidence of intent. In any event, as to intent, the court said that the circumstances of the protest, the fact that officers previously ordered mask-wearers to remove masks on threat of arrest (even if Gates didn't hear this), and the symbolic threat behind the Guy Fawkes mask all suggested that an officer could infer intent to intimidate.)
Judge Williams dissented. She argued that the majority "fail[ed] to adequately address the First-Amendment implications of the conduct and statute at issue here." In particular, she wrote that "the specific right at issue here--whether individuals can be subject to arrest for wearing a mask during a peaceful protest--was "clearly established" at the time of Gates' arrest."
The panel unanimously held that the officers enjoyed absolute immunity against Gates's state-law claims.