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Ninth Circuit Reverses Summary Judgment on Unreasonable Seizure Claim

by Mark Wilson

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the dismissal of unreasonable seizure and First Amendment violation claims. The Court held that there were disputed issues of material fact on whether police had probable cause to cite plaintiff for obstructing a buffalo herding operation.

Several state and federal agencies conduct buffalo herding (“hazing”) operations in and near Yellowstone National Park. The Buffalo Field Campaign is a nonprofit organization that monitors and documents those hazing operations. It sends video footage and information about the operations to media outlets and government agencies.

On May 23, 2012, campaign volunteers Patrick Reed and Kasi Craddock-Crocker were in a vehicle attempting to observe the hazing of buffalo into Yellowstone National Park across Highway 191. Montana Department of Livestock Agent Rob Tierney approached Reed’s vehicle and directed him to move, claiming he was parked in the planned herding route.

Reed drove about 0.6 miles north and parked on a gravel road that ran parallel to the highway on a hill that was separated from the highway by a grass median about 0.3 miles north of the haze path. He parked there “because it was the farthest away place to be out of the way, but still be able to see the crossing and get a good count on the buffalo.” He and Craddock-Crocker believed they “would be well out of the way.”

After Reed parked there, Tierney radioed Gallatin County Sheriff’s Deputy Doug Lieurance, claiming that Reed had not followed his instructions. Lieurance temporarily halted the haze and drove to Reed’s location.

Lieurance asked Reed why he parked in a different location than Tierney instructed. Reed said he was “not interfering with the haze” and was “not breaking any law.” Lieurance then cited Reed for the misdemeanor offense of obstructing a peace officer. “You’ve been instructed by law enforcement to do something,” said Lieurance. “You didn’t do it.” He wrote on the citation that Reed “was told by a law enforcement officer to be in a specific place during a governmental operation 3 times and still did not comply.” No buffalo, horses, or riders were in Lieurance’s sight when he wrote the citation.

Reed and Craddock-Crocker told Lieurance that it was “illegal” to tell them they had to go to a specific place because they were not actually obstructing anything. Lieurance threatened to arrest Reed if he did not move. Reed moved to the location Lieurance directed him to. They could not see the buffalo crossing the highway from that location. Other members of the public were permitted to remain within 50 yards of the hazing operation.

Reed brought federal suit, alleging that Lieurance’s conduct violated both the First and Fourth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. He also raised failure-to-train claims against the sheriff, sheriff’s office, and county.

The district court granted defendants summary judgment on the Fourth Amendment unreasonable seizure and failure-to-train claims. The First Amendment claim proceeded to trial. The court excluded the testimony of Reed’s police practices expert. After Reed presented his case, the court granted defendants’ FRCP 50 motion for judgment as a matter of law on all remaining claims.

The Ninth Circuit reversed, finding “that the district court improperly invaded the province of the jury when, at the summary judgment stage, it resolved factual disputes material to the question of probable cause.” The district court could not “conclude that as a matter of law, a reasonably prudent officer in Deputy Lieurance’s situation would have had probable cause to believe Reed committed obstruction. Thus, Defendants are not entitled to summary judgment on Reed’s unlawful seizure claim.”

The appellate court also reversed the sua sponte dismissal of Reed’s failure-to-train claim. The lower court improperly failed to provide Reed notice and an opportunity to respond before dismissing that claim.

The Ninth Circuit also agreed with Reed that the district court abused its discretion in excluding his expert witness’ testimony. Finally, the Court concluded that the FRCP 50 dismissal of Reed’s First Amendment claim was improper because he presented sufficient evidence for the jury to conclude that Lieurance’s threat to arrest him “would chill a person of ordinary firmness from their First Amendment activity.” Accordingly, the Court instructed that the case “shall be reassigned to a different district judge on remand.” See: Reed v. Lieurance, 863 F.3d 1196 (9th Cir. 2017). 

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Related legal case

Reed v. Lieurance



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