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Ross v. City of Jackson, Missouri

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

July 26, 2018

James Robert Ross Plaintiff- Appellant
v.
City of Jackson, Missouri; Ryan Medlin, individually and in his official capacity as a police officer; Anthony Henson, individually and in his official capacity as a police officer; Toby Freeman, individually and in his official capacity as a police officer Defendants - Appellees

          Submitted: January 11, 2018

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri - Cape Girardeau

          Before LOKEN, GRUENDER, and KELLY, Circuit Judges.

          KELLY, Circuit Judge.

         James Robert Ross appeals the district court's grant of summary judgment to Ryan Medlin, Anthony Henson, and Toby Freeman, three police officers employed by the City of Jackson, Missouri.[1] Ross argues that the district court erred in concluding that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity on his 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim alleging the violation of his constitutional rights under the First and Fourth Amendments.

         I.

         On January 25, 2015, James Ross was a 20-year-old resident of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and an active user of the social media website, Facebook. Facebook allows users to connect with each other by establishing "friend" relationships and posting items to a personal feed that can be viewed by the user's friends. That evening, one of Ross's Facebook friends posted an image[2] (or meme) that showed a number of different firearms below the title "Why I need a gun." Above each type of gun was an explanation of what the gun could be used for-e.g., above a shotgun: "This one for burglars & home invasions"; above a rifle with a scope: "This one for putting food on the table"; and above an assault rifle: "This one for self-defense against enemies foreign & domestic, for preservation of freedom & liberty, and to prevent government atrocities." Ross interpreted this post as advocating against gun control measures. Ross, an advocate in favor of gun control measures, commented on the post: "Which one do I need to shoot up a kindergarten?" Ross then logged off Facebook and went to bed.

         The post (including Ross's comment) was soon deleted, but not before a cousin of the person who originally posted the meme took a screenshot of it. The cousin then forwarded the screenshot to a yet another person, a mutual cousin, without any annotation or additional commentary. That individual, in turn, shared it with her husband-Ryan Medlin, a member of the City of Jackson Police Department. Around 5:30 p.m. on January 26, 2015, Medlin, who was off duty at the time, forwarded the screenshot to two other members of the Jackson Police Department, Anthony Henson and Toby Freeman. Henson and Freeman were off duty as well, but they followed up on the post when they arrived at work. Freeman, a member of the investigation division, determined that James Ross had authored the comment and that he worked at the Casey's gas station in Fruitland, Missouri. None of the officers conducted any additional investigation into either Ross or the post before Henson and Freeman drove to Casey's.

         Meanwhile, Ross had started his shift at Casey's at 2 p.m. on January 26. Henson and Freeman arrived between 7 and 8 p.m. Ross was in the kitchen with three other employees when one of the officers asked to speak with him. Ross did not know the person was a police officer (he was not in uniform) and assumed he was a customer. When Ross walked out of the kitchen, the officers immediately arrested him. One of the officers told him they were there because of a post on the internet, but neither officer asked Ross any questions about the post or his comment. Nor did they ask Ross any questions about his interest in, or ownership of, firearms. Unprompted, however, Ross told the officers that his comment on Facebook was not serious, that it was meant to be a joke, and that he was willing "to clear this up right here."

         Ross was placed in handcuffs and escorted out of the store to a police car in full view of his co-workers. Once Ross was in the car, the officers read him his Miranda rights and took him to the police station. At the station, Ross was questioned by Medlin. Ross wrote out a statement explaining what he meant by his comment on the post. He was then interviewed-wherein Ross was able to further explain what happened. According to Ross, several officers at the station told him they did not think the case was likely to go any further than the prosecuting attorney's office. However, Ross was not allowed to leave. He was held at the Jackson Police Station until the next day, during which time he was served with a warrant for "Peace Disturbance." The next day, he was transferred to the Cape Girardeau County Jail where he was held for another two to three days, until he bonded out by paying $1000 in cash. At some point during that period, Ross was formally charged with the class B misdemeanor of "Peace Disturbance" under Mo. Rev. Stat. § 574.010(1)(c) (2015). On April 7, 2015, the charges against Ross were formally dismissed.

         In June 2015, Ross filed a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that the officers had violated his constitutional rights under the First and Fourth Amendments.[3] After discovery, based on the undisputed facts, both parties moved for summary judgment. The district court granted the officers summary judgment, reasoning that they were entitled to qualified immunity because the rights that Ross asserted had not been clearly established at the time that they were violated. Ross appeals the district court's ruling.

         II.

         Qualified immunity is designed to shield officers from liability when they engage in conduct that is not clearly outside the realm of what the Constitution permits. As the Supreme Court has said:

Qualified immunity attaches when an official's conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. While th[e] Court's case law does not require a case directly on point for a right to be clearly established, existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate. In other ...

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