Police Immune from Abortion Protester’s Arrest Claims

The Potter Stewart U.S. Courthouse in Cincinnati, home of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. (Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress)

(CN) – Four police officers who arrested an anti-abortion protester over a perceived bomb threat are entitled to qualified immunity, the Sixth Circuit ruled Friday.

Kimberly Thames filed a civil rights lawsuit in 2016 against the city of Westland, Michigan, its police chief and several police officers following her arrest outside the Northland Family Planning Center in August of that year.

Thames was arrested after a security guard at the clinic accused her of saying: “I prophesy bombs, I prophesy bombs. There is going to be a bombing in the near future.”

The 57-year-old Roman Catholic denied making the statements, but was arrested for violations of Michigan’s anti-terrorism statute and held in the Westland police station for over 49 hours before her release.

Westland police concluded there was probable cause for Thames’ arrest, but declined to charge her with a crime.

U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh delivered a mixed ruling in April 2018. While he granted summary judgment to the city and its Police Chief Jeff Jedrusik on all claims against them, he denied the arresting officers’ request for immunity.

Steeh also denied Thames’ motion for summary judgment on her claims.

Both sides appealed the ruling to the Sixth Circuit, who overturned the decision to deny the officers immunity but upheld the decision to deny Thames’ motion for summary judgment.

The three judge panel found that Thames failed to show that the officers acted improperly.

“Given that none of the other protesters were arrested, particularly the far more effectively antagonistic nun, the officers’ comments at the scene (i.e., Officer Halaas’s hostile shout of ‘I don’t give a shit,’

Sgt. Brooks’s expression of his opinion that ‘anybody who has anything to do with this thing is a fanatic,’ and Officer Gatti’s insult to the nun, calling her a ‘disgrace’) do not demonstrate that they would not have arrested Thames ‘but for’ her anti-abortion protesting,” Circuit Judge Alice Batchelder wrote. “Rather, they arrested her for making what they reasonably accepted as being a bomb threat and for behaving in an evasive manner during the investigation of it.”

Circuit Judges Danny Boggs, a Ronald Reagan appointee, and John Bush, a Trump appointee, sat on the panel with Batchelder, a George H. W. Bush appointee.

The panel also found that Thames’ arrest was not a violation of her free speech.

“There is no ‘fundamental right’ to make a bomb threat,” Batchelder wrote. “It was because of the bomb threat that the police arrested Thames but not the other protesters. There is a rational basis for differentiating between people who voice bomb threats and everyone else.”

The panel found that since all the appeals were intertwined, the decision on qualified immunity resolved Thames’ appeal for summary judgment. The Sixth Circuit remanded the lawsuit back to the federal court for an order consistent with its opinion.

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