PATRIZI v. HUFF, 11-4168 (6th Cir. 8-24-2012)
A lawyer and an acquaintance were at a bar when a disturbance happened. Police came and began questioning the acquaintance about the disturbance. According to the lawyer, she began to watch this interrogation of her acquaintance, and, at certain points, politely asked questions along the lines of whether her acquaintance was being detained by the policemen. Policemen had a different version of the encounter, one where the lawyer was drunken, boisterous and interruptive in her questioning of the policemen doing the interrogation. The policemen (specifically, Cleveland police officers Scott Huff and Thomas Connole) arrested the lawyer for obstruction. The lawyer sued the policemen for false arrest and thereby became the plaintiff in this case.
The Sixth Circuit panel affirmed the lower court’s holding of no qi for the policemen because the plaintiff’s version of the facts is generally accepted as true on a police motion for qi, and because polite questioning of police actions is not obstruction under Ohio law.
A final point is worth mentioning, although not explicitly raised by the parties. The Supreme Court has recognized First Amendment limitations on the conduct that state municipalities may outlaw with respect to interruption of police activity. In City of Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451, 455 (1987), the Court held that a Houston ordinance that made it illegal to “oppose, molest, abuse or interrupt any policeman in the execution of his duty” was substantially overbroad and therefore unconstitutional. The Court explained that “the First Amendment protects a significant amount of verbal criticism and challenge directed at police officers” and that “[t]he freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state.” . . . Accordingly, the Court concluded that because the “Houston ordinance” was not “narrowly tailored to prohibit only disorderly conduct or fighting words” it impermissibly captured protected speech. . . . Although Hill is not directly relevant insofar as the present case does not concern a First Amendment challenge, Hill’s explanation of what conduct may and may not be criminalized must nevertheless inform this court’s analysis. See Swiecicki v. Delgado, 463 F.3d 489, 498 (6th Cir. 2006) (“An officer may not base his probable-cause determination on speech protected by the First Amendment.”). Thus, despite any arguable ambiguity in the Ohio state courts’ jurisprudence, the U.S. Supreme Court has clearly established that nonaggressive questioning of police officers is constitutionally protected conduct. Patrizi’s actions fall precisely within that protected ambit because, when the facts are viewed in her favor, her conduct did not cross the line into fighting words or disorderly conduct prohibiting the officers from conducting their investigation.