A three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit US Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in Denver yesterday on the lawsuit brought by “Freedom Flyer” Phil Mocek against the TSA checkpoint staff and Albuquerque police responsible for falsely arresting him and trying to delete his audio and video recordings in retaliation for his trying to exercise his Constitutional rights to travel by air without carrying government-issued ID documents, and to film and record the TSA’s “ID verification” process for flyers without ID.
Mr. Mocek was able to recover his audio and video recording after the police returned his camera when they let him out of jail. On the basis of that recording, Mr. Mocek was acquitted by an Albuquerque jury of all of the trumped-up criminal charges.
After his acquittal, Mr. Mocek filed a Federal civil rights lawsuit against the TSA, the Albuquerque police department, and the individual TSA employees and ABQ airport police responsible for violating his rights.
Mr. Mocek’s lawsuit was dismissed, before it could go to trial, by US District Court Judge James Browning in Albuquerque, who ruled that Mr. Mocek had “failed to state a claim on which relief could be granted.”
The issue in rulings like this is not whether the plaintiff (Mr. Mocek) has proven his case, or what the judge believes actually happened. Those are issues for a jury to decide, after hearing the evidence presented in a trial. A motion to dismiss can be granted only if — even assuming that everything the plaintiff says in the complaint can be proven to be true — those facts would not be sufficient to constitute a basis for a finding that the plaintiff’s legal rights have been violated.
That’s what is now being considered by three judges of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals (Presiding Judge Timothy Tymkovich and Judges Neil Gorsuch and Jerome Holmes), and that was argued before them on Tuesday morning in Denver by lawyers representing Mr. Mocek, the TSA and its employees, and the city of Albuquerque (on behalf of the Albuquerque police department, its airport division, and its employees).
[Official audio recording by the court in downlaodable podcast and streaming formats.]
Clearly there are problems with the Albuquerque Police Department which might call for oversight or corrective action by the Federal courts. Five cases, all of them appeals from decisions of the US District Court for New Mexico, were argued on Tuesday before the 10th Circuit panel that heard argument in Mocek v. Albuquerque et al. Of those five cases, three were lawsuits against the Albuquerque police, under the same Federal civil rights statute as in Mr. Mocek’s case, for a variety of violations of individuals’ Constitutional rights by the police department and its officers.
In many respects, all of these appeals concerned the limits of legal liability, and the corresponding limits of impunity, for actions by government agencies and agents that violate individuals’ rights.