WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide whether a Secret Service agent can be held liable for arresting a Colorado man who confronted then-Vice President Dick Cheney and told him his "policies in Iraq are disgusting."
The justices will consider an issue potentially significant to all Americans: whether they can criticize public officials without fear of arrest.
But the case before the court is complicated in two ways. First, it involves Secret Service agents who have a special duty to act quickly and decisively to protect the president and vice president from harm. And second, the Colorado man touched or pushed Cheney as he confronted him, and a lower court said his arrest was justified for this reason.
Nonetheless, the U.S. appeals court in Denver cleared the way for the Colorado man to proceed with the part of his suit arguing his arrest was in retaliation for his critical comments, and therefore, a violation of the First Amendment.
Obama administration lawyers joined with lawyers for Agent Virgil "Gus" Reiche and Daniel Doyle, a second agent on the scene, in urging the high court to take up the case and dismiss the lawsuit. They argued the agents protecting Cheney had acted reasonably and deserve to be shielded from personal lawsuits for doing their jobs.
In June 2006, Steven Howards spotted Cheney emerging from a shopping mall in Beaver Creek, Colo., and chatting amiably with several people. Agents overheard Howards talking on his cellphone, saying, "I'm going to ask [Cheney] how many kids he's killed today."
Howard then approached the vice president, made his comment and allegedly pushed or touched him on the shoulder. Accounts differed whether it was soft touch or a push.
Nothing happened immediately, but Reichle, a Secret Service coordinator on the scene, heard about the incident. He confronted Howards, accused him of an assault and ordered his arrest when he denied putting his hand on the vice president. Howards was detained for several hours and released. A harassment charge lodged against him was dismissed.
He then sued Reichle and Doyle, and accused them of violating his Fourth Amendment rights protecting against an unreasonable seizure and his First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
In March, Howards won a split decision from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. Its judges said his arrest was reasonable and lawful, but they nonetheless agreed he could sue the agents under the First Amendment for arresting him in retaliation for his critical words.