U.S. Supreme Court ruling may increase counties' exposure to retaliatory arrest claims

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Key Takeaways

On June 20, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a per curiam (unauthored) ruling in Gonzalez v. Trevino, a case with implications for retaliatory arrest claims against local law enforcement. In the case, Ms. Gonzalez asked the Court to reconsider the standard of evidence needed to meet an exception to the rule established in Nieves v. Bartlett that arrests with probable cause do not qualify for retaliatory arrest litigation. She also asked the court to limit the application of Nieves to "split-second" arrests. 

  • County nexus: The probable-cause rule established by Nieves, provides county governments with important protection against frivolous retaliatory arrest claims, which can lead to costly litigation and have a chilling effect on local law enforcement. 
  • NACo advocacy: Through the Local Government Legal Center, NACo filed an amicus brief in support of the respondent arguing arguing for a narrow and objective exception under Nieves. The LGLC also advanced the view that Nieves does not apply solely to split-second arrests. Learn more here.
  • The Court's ruling: The Court ruled for Ms. Gonzalez in the first question, suggesting that the Fifth Circuit's ruling went too far in demanding virtually identical and identifiable comparators to meet the threshold for the Nieves exception and instead affirming that any form of objective evidence is sufficient. While this decision means that more plaintiffs may be able to bring a retaliatory arrest claim under the Nieves exception by utilizing any form of objective evidence, the Court was careful to emphasize that the Nieves exception is narrow. Additionally, because the Court did not take up the second question, local governments may see future arguments by plaintiffs by plaintiffs that the requirement to plead and prove an absence of probable cause does not apply in non-split-second arrests. 

County governments should continue to defend retaliatory arrest claims on the grounds that the exception to Nieves is narrow and requires objective evidence, but law enforcement agencies should carefully review policies and procedures in light of the ruling to guard against increased litigation in these matters.

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