Exploring a Citizen’s Refusal to Cooperate, Probable Cause to Arrest Them, Use of Force and Retaliation

  • Absent the use of physical force or a submission to the assertion of authority, a person is not arrested. 
  • Qualified immunity protects an officer from civil liability when it is objectively reasonable for an officer to believe that he or she had probable cause to make an arrest.  
  • In determining how much force may be used in making an arrest, the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight, all are to be considered.  
  • Arresting someone in retaliation for them having expressed an opinion or making a comment violates that person’s First Amendment right to freedom of expression. 

On April 30, 2019, someone (not named) observed a “dark grey Ford Mustang” being driven “erratically” in Fountain Valley, California, by a white male with black hair between the ages of 25 and 30. More importantly, the caller reported seeing a blindfolded female passenger in the car. The caller was able to record the license number and report that as well. A registration check provided the police with the name of the owner, Benjamin Hill, and an address.  

Fountain Valley Police Department Officers Stuart Chase and Gannon Kelly drove to Hill’s home to check the well-being of the passenger. Unbeknownst to the officers, Hill was taking his blindfolded wife to a restaurant for a surprise anniversary dinner.  

As the officers arrived at the residence, Teresa Hill – Benjamin’s mother – happened to be pulling into the driveway with her grandchildren in tow. She verified that Benjamin did in fact live there, and that he owned a grey Mustang. Asked for Benjamin’s cellphone number, she declined to answer the question, wanting to first warn her son about the officers before they had a chance to call him. Why she wanted to warn him is never explained. Stephen Hill – Benjamin’s father – then came out of the house. The officers told the couple that they were investigating a report of “erratic driving,” and that they needed to talk to Benjamin. Stephen didn’t believe the officers. As Teresa went inside, intending to call Benjamin and warn him about the police looking for him, Stephen continued to talk with the officers, demanding that they tell him “what was really going on.”  

So, the officers told him about the report of a blindfolded female passenger in the car. Still declining the officers’ requests for Benjamin’s cellphone number, Stephen told the officers that his son was merely out with his wife and that he would pass along the officers’ business cards. The officers told Stephen to take his granddaughter inside the house and return with Stephen’s cellphone number. Stephen went inside.  

About then, the officers noticed someone in the house through a bedroom window. Chase approached the window and saw a young male who matched Benjamin’s description. Believing this person to be Benjamin, the officer told him through the window to come out of the house. But the young male – who turned out to be Benjamin’s brother, Brett – walked out of sight. Stephen was then seen entering the bedroom and closing the curtains, not hearing (or ignoring) Chase ask through the window who the other person was.  

With this lack of cooperation, the officers suspected that Benjamin’s parents were hiding him from them. Seeing Teresa, Stephen and the as-of-yet unidentified young male through a window of the apparently locked front door, the officers threatened to arrest them all for “obstruction” if they didn’t come out.  

Stephen and Brett then came out, with Stephen attempting to close the door behind him as he told the officers they could not go in. As he did so, Officer Kelly placed his foot in the doorjamb, preventing it from being fully closed. Stephen later denied that he closed the door on Kelly’s foot. The officers then grabbed Stephen, led him to the lawn and took him to the ground while kneeling on his back as they handcuffed him. Teresa and Brett then came out of the house. Stephen later said that in the process of being arrested, his glasses cut his forehead and that he suffered injuries to his neck and back. It is unknown whether Benjamin was ever contacted. 

The Hills sued the officers and the city of Fountain Valley in federal court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, for using excessive force on Stephen and the unreasonable seizure of all the Hills on Fourth Amendment issues. The lawsuit also alleged First Amendment retaliation on behalf of Stephen. The officers’ summary judgment motion was granted, dismissing the entire case, and the Hills appealed the Fourth and First Amendment issues.