In recent years, academics and the plaintiff’s bar have complained about the Supreme Court frequently reversing lower court decisions which have denied requests by police officers for qualified immunity. Last month, however, in Sause v. Bauer, No. 17-742 (June 28, 2018) the Supreme Court reversed a lower court decision which had granted qualified immunity to police officers. In a unanimous per curiam (unauthored) opinion, the Supreme Court remanded the case back to the district court to reconsider its decision granting qualified immunity to officers who had allegedly ordered a person to stop praying inside her residence.
According to Mary Anne Sause’s complaint, police officers had visited Sause’s apartment in response to a noise complaint. The officers gained entrance to her apartment and then allegedly proceeded to engage in strange and abusive conduct before ultimately citing Sause for disorderly conduct and interfering with law enforcement. Sause also alleged that at one point she had knelt and began to pray and that one of the officers had ordered her to stop. Sause alleged that the officers had violated her First Amendment rights to exercise her religion and also infringed on her Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures.
The district court granted the officers’ motion to dismiss, holding that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity, and also denied Sause’s motion to amend her complaint. On appeal, Sause argued only on behalf of her First Amendment claim, and the Tenth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision. However, in reversing the lower court’s decision, the Supreme Court stated as an initial matter that “there can be no doubt that the First Amendment protects the right to pray.” The Court acknowledged that this right was not absolute and that a person who had just been arrested, for example, could not delay placement in a squad car by beginning to engage in otherwise protected First Amendment prayer.
But the Court held that dismissal at the initial stage of the litigation was inappropriate because it was simply impossible to tell from the complaint whether Sause had given the officers permission to enter her apartment, whether the officers had any other basis for entering the apartment, or for that matter whether the officers continued presence inside the apartment was lawful. The Court also noted that the complaint did not indicate what the officers were saying to Sause before they allegedly told her to stop praying. Without knowing more about what had actually happened inside Sause’s apartment, the Court ruled that the case should not have been dismissed via qualified immunity.
Not surprisingly, groups championing religious freedoms have suggested that Sause sends a clear signal that citizens are entitled to religious liberty in their own home. However, in our opinion, the Sause decision appears to be more based on the idea that district courts should be hesitant to grant motions to dismiss when a plaintiff’s complaint leaves the parties and the courts to imagine and speculate regarding what actually happened between litigants.