By John V. Berry, Esq., www.berrylegal.com
SUMMARY OF CASE
Steve Armbruster, a Kutztown University police officer filed an appeal from an adverse decision by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, in Armbruster v. Cavanaugh, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 22288 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 9, 2010) regarding his claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against university officials and the police chief of his department on the basis of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
The case essentially involved a student protest where the individual students had engaged in a peaceful protest, and counter-protest where the students involved had followed officer requests to move away from university buildings. Subsequently, some students got upset at the political issues being debated and complained to university personnel.
As a result, the university president requested that Officer Armbruster to “push” the protesters off campus. Officer Armbruster did not respond to the university president’s request to do so and the request then went to the Chief of Police. The Chief of Police for the department then observed the situation and ordered Officer Armbruster, again, to push the protesters off campus because of his perception that they were engaged in disorderly conduct.
In the officer’s view, the protesters had not been acting in a disorderly manner and objected to the Chief’s orders, claiming that they would violate the civil rights of the protesters and might subject himself to personal liability. The Chief of Police then relieved Officer Armbruster of his duties and eventually placed him on administrative leave. Finally, Officer Armbruster was given a 5-day suspension as a result of the objections he lodged.
Officer Armbruster then filed suit alleging that he had been subject to violations by the department of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. The U.S. District Court, after hearing the claims, dismissed them, causing the appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
In the appeal, Officer Armbruster conceded his first claim, based on the First Amendment, but had appealed the dismissal of his claims under the Fourteenth Amendment. This claim by Officer Armbruster had alleged a violation of his right to refuse to obey an unconstitutional order after he was ordered to arrest or threaten to arrest demonstrators for disorderly conduct.
The U.S. District Court had previously concluded that a purported right to refuse to violate others' constitutional rights had not been recognized. The Third Circuit also disagreed with Officer Armbruster’s Fourteenth Amendment claims, refusing to expand the doctrine of substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment to include employment disputes involving a refusal to obey an allegedly unlawful order and subsequent suspension.
In addition, the officer's proposed remedy, that the U.S. District Court issue an injunction shielding the officer from future disciplinary action should he refuse an unconstitutional order in the future, could not be issued. Lastly, the Third Circuit found that while Officer Armbruster did not have a constitutional right to disobey a supervisory order based on his own analysis of the law, that the officer could instead seek recourse through grievance and employment-related procedures if desired.
Specifically, the Third Circuit held that:
“While a police officer does not have a constitutional right to disobey an order based on his or her own opinion of law, an officer who is disciplined for questioning the legality of a superior's orders is not entirely without a remedy. The officer typically has recourse to union grievance procedures or other employment-related legal channels. See, e.g., Homar v. Gilbert, 63 F. Supp. 2d 559, 564, 570 n.11 (M.D. Pa. 1999) (discussing the availability of grievance procedures in the context of a case brought by a campus police officer alleging due process violations).”
Subsequently, the Third Circuit dismissed Officer Armbruster’s complaint on appeal, agreeing with the U.S. District Court.
THOUGHTS ON THE COURT’S RULING
In these types of cases, it can be hard to convince a court to issue an injunction like the one sought. There are generally too many unknowns in issuing a broad injunction like the one sought. The best advice in this type of case for an officer would be to make sure that your objections to any perceived illegal orders are clearly documented and known (having witnesses to the order and objection also helps). Once the objections and legal issues about a proposed order for police action are established, the Third Circuit is of the belief that the officer should obey the order (with the facts at hand here) and file a grievance later.
These issues can get very complex, so an officer faced with this type of legal issues should consult with an attorney as soon as possible.