Indecency / Obscenity, Political Expression
Cohen v. California
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In 2013, Barboza filed a civil lawsuit alleging his First Amendment rights were violated when he was arrested because he wrote “fuck your shitty town bitches” on a traffic ticket. The District Court ruled that Barboza’s rights were violated, and later granted the Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment against the District Attorney for prosecuting a case in violation of the Plaintiff’s first amendment rights.
In this case, the Plaintiff, William Barboza, received a speeding ticket. He pled guilty and mailed the speeding ticket to the authorities, but on the top of the ticket he replaced the word “liberty” with “tyranny”, and wrote “Fuck your shitty town bitches” on the top of the ticket.
The Judge believed that the statement on the traffic ticket might be construed as a threat and referred the ticket to Zangala, a district attorney. After conferring with the Assistant District Attorney, Zangala decided to move forward with an aggravated harassment charge. The Judge advised the Plaintiff to appear for the ticket. Detective Steven D’Agata showed the Plaintiff the ticket and advised him of the aggravated harassment charge. D’Agata filed an advisement charging the Plaintiff at the district attorney’s direction. Officer Melvin Gorr assisted in the arrest. The charges were later dismissed as a violation of the First Amendment rights of the Plaintiff.
The Village of Liberty, Steven D’Gota, Melvin Gorr, and Zangala filed motions for summary judgment and the Plaintiff cross-claimed for summary judgment. In September of 2015, a district judge granted a motion for summary judgment filed by the Plaintiff against Zangala. The Court set a trial date for the Plaintiff’s claim that officers had been improperly trained by the Town and request for an investigation into whether there was a pattern of prosecuting these types of violations. The trial is currently pending.
The Court first discussed the issue of qualified immunity, annunciating a two-part test for qualified immunity: “the first prong asks whether the facts taken in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury showed that officer’s conduct violated a federal right; and the second prong asks whether the right in question was clearly established at the time of the violation.” Court Transcript, Pg. 7.
The Court found that D’Agata and Gorr had violated the Plaintiff’s First Amendment rights but they were nevertheless entitled to the defense of qualified immunity. The Court found a First Amendment violation because the speech did not constitute a “true threat” because there was no risk of imminent harm. The Court, however, found that D’Agata and Gorr were entitled to qualified immunity because their actions were “objectively reasonable.” The Court found a different analysis for the Assistant District Attorney, because attorneys are held to a higher standard because of their knowledge of the law. Zangala, the District Attorney, argued that he was entitled to absolute prosecutorial immunity. The Court found he was entitled to absolute immunity for charging plaintiff, but that his issue of a warrantless arrest was not entitled to the same protection because of the higher standard to which attorneys are held. Zangala also failed the qualified immunity test for this decision, again because of the higher standard to which attorneys are held. The Court found that the Village was entitled to qualified immunity because the officer in question was following the instructions of the assistant District Attorney. Therefore, the Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment was granted as it pertained to the Assistant District Attorney, but denied as to the other actors. However, regarding the Plaintiff’s claim against of a continuing pattern of arrests and a lack of proper training by the city for officers, the Court found that it could not be determined on summary judgment and ordered that claim to proceed to trial.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This case expands expression by holding that the Plaintiff could not be charged with aggravated harassment for the statements he wrote on his speeding ticket. Further, this case held the District Attorney liable for ordering a warrantless arrest in violation of the Plaintiff’s First Amendment rights.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
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