The case arose when Steven Howards was taking his son to a piano recital in Beaver Creek, Colorado, and saw then-Vice President Cheney shaking hands with members of the public. He decided to confront Cheney about the administration’s Iraq policy.
Gus Reichle and Dan Doyle were part of the Secret Service detail protecting the vice president that day.
Doyle says he overheard Howards say into his cell phone that he was going to ask Cheney “how many kids he’s killed today” referring to the conflict in Iraq. According to court papers Howards approached the vice president and told him his “policies in Iraq are disgusting” and as he left he touched Cheney’s shoulder.
When questioned by an agent after the brief confrontation, Howards initially said he hadn’t touched Cheney. Based in part on the fact that other Secret Services had witnessed what they considered an “unsolicited physical contact” with Cheney, Howards was arrested. He was turned over to local police. State charges against him were later dismissed.
Howards sued the Secret Service agents, arguing in part that they had violated his First Amendment rights by arresting him after he had engaged in what he considered constitutionally protected speech.
The agents claimed immunity to the suit, arguing that they should be shielded from such suits because they had probable cause to arrest Howards. A lower court ruled the suit could go forward.
Lawyers for the Secret Service argue in court papers that while agents “will never allow concerns over potential legal liability to compromise their solemn and critical duty” they shouldn’t have to fear personal liability.
They say the issue is of grave national importance because “there is nothing more debilitating to the Nation than the assassination of the President” and that the agents must be allowed to make “split-second decisions that could have life-or-death and historic consequences. It is vitally important, therefore, that Secret Service agents act without hesitation.”
The Obama administration has weighed in on behalf of the agents, arguing that the lower court decision could “potentially permit a constitutional claim any time the circumstances of an otherwise lawful arrest happen to implicate expressive activity.”