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Gonzalez v. Trevino, 2024 U.S. LEXIS 2708 (S. Ct. June 20, 2024)

Gonzalez v. Trevino, Supreme Court of the United States, decided June 20, 2024.

In Nieves v. Bartlett, the Supreme Court held that, as a general rule, a plaintiff bringing a retaliatory-arrest claim must plead and prove the absence of probable cause for the arrest. At the same time, the Court recognized a narrow exception to that rule. The existence of probable cause does not defeat a plaintiff’s claim if he produces objective evidence that he was arrested when otherwise similarly situated individuals not engaged in the same sort of protected speech had not been. We granted Page 2 of 12 certiorari in this case to consider whether the Fifth Circuit properly applied these principles. It did not. We therefore vacate that court’s judgment and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Gonzalez brought suit under 42 U. S. C. §1983, in Federal District Court against Trevino along with the police chief and the private attorney in their individual capacities. Her complaint alleged that she was arrested in retaliation for her role in organizing the petition for Rapelye’s removal and that the defendants therefore
violated her First Amendment rights.

It was claimed by Gonzalez that other people were not charged for the same action. The Fifth Circuit said that a claim could only fall within the Nieves Exception if the plaintiff proffered “comparative evidence” of “otherwise similarly situated individuals when engaged in the same criminal conduct but we not arrested.”

We agree with Gonzalez that the Fifth Circuit took an overly cramped view of Nieves. That court thought Gonzalez had to provide very specific comparator evidence—that is, examples of identifiable people who “mishandled a government petition” in the same way Gonzalez did but were not arrested. 42 F. 4th, at 492. Although the Nieves exception is slim, the demand for virtually identical and identifiable comparators goes too far.

Gonzalez showed that no one had been arrested for engaging in the same kind of conduct, especially when the criminal prohibition is longstanding, and the conduct of issue is not novel. This makes it more likely that an officer is inclined to arrest someone for engaging in such conduct in the past.