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Federal Court Limits Portland Police Use of Tear Gas at Protests


From Judge Marco A. Hernandez's decision in Don't Shoot Portland v. City of Portland (D. Ore.), released Wednesday:

On May 29, 2020, citizens of Portland, Oregon, joined nationwide protests against the death of George Floyd and other acts of violence perpetrated by police officers against the African American community. While many demonstrations have remained peaceful, violence and destruction have occurred. Plaintiffs in this case challenge the Portland Police [Bureau's] use of tear gas against protestors participating in these demonstrations.

The Court has reviewed the declarations and video evidence submitted by the parties. Defendant highlights the destruction that occurred on the first night of demonstrations, including a fire instigated by protestors inside the Justice Center [which houses the Multnomah County Detention Center]. Defendant also offers evidence of largely peaceful marches—without any police intervention—and of officers using tear gas in response to individuals shaking fences and throwing projectiles.

Plaintiffs do not dispute that, in some instances, officers deployed tear gas after individuals, within a larger crowd of peaceful protestors, threw water bottles and fireworks. {Defendant also asserts that officers have been targeted with other projectiles, including "bricks, full cans of soup, frozen water bottles, full water bottles, rocks, steel sling shot balls, fireworks, bottles, beer cans, flares and many other items."} But they also offer evidence that, in certain incidents, officers fired cannisters of tear gas at protestors without warning or provocation both in front of the Justice Center and elsewhere in downtown Portland. Plaintiffs also recount multiple occasions in which crowds were surrounded by tear gas without available avenues of escape. Tear gas was also fired at protesters attempting to comply with officers' orders to leave the areas at issue….

Before turning to the TRO analysis, there are four points worth addressing. First, as Judge Jackson noted in resolving a similar motion just days ago in the District of Colorado, people have a right to demonstrate and protest the actions of governmental officials, including police officers, without fear for their safety. This right is enshrined in the First and Fourth Amendments of the Constitution.

Second, police in this country have difficult, dangerous, and often traumatic jobs. As the Supreme Court has recognized, officers are often "forced to make split-second judgments [ ] in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving."

Third, this case arises in unprecedented times. COVID-19 is a highly contagious and deadly respiratory virus that has taken too many lives and upended communities throughout this country.

Finally, like Judge Jackson, the Court recognizes the difficulty in drawing an enforceable line that permits police officers to use appropriate means to respond to violence and destruction of property without crossing the line into chilling free speech and abusing those who wish to exercise it….

The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. Excessive force claims are analyzed under the objective reasonableness standard of the Fourth Amendment. The reasonableness of an officer's conduct must be assessed "from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene," recognizing the fact that the officer may be "forced to make split-second judgments" under stressful and dangerous conditions. The Fourth Amendment standard requires inquiry into the factual circumstances of every case. Relevant factors include the severity of the crime, the potential threat posed by the suspect to the officer's and others' safety, and the suspect's attempts to resist or evade arrest.

Here, Plaintiffs provide video evidence and declarations documenting the use of tear gas against protestors. While Defendant points to the destruction that occurred at the Justice Center on May 29, 2020, Plaintiffs offer evidence that tear gas was used indiscriminately in other instances throughout the city. In some of these instances, there is no evidence of any provocation. In others, individuals appear to have shaken fences and thrown water bottles and fireworks at the police.

Either way, there is no dispute that Plaintiffs engaged only in peaceful and non-destructive protest. There is no record of criminal activity on the part of Plaintiffs. To the contrary, there is even evidence that some protesters were confronted with tear gas while trying to follow police orders and leave the demonstrations. Given the effects of tear gas, and the potential deadly harm posed by the spread of COVID-19, Plaintiffs have established a strong likelihood that Defendant engaged in excessive force contrary to the Fourth Amendment….

The First Amendment provides that all citizens have a right to hold and express their personal political beliefs…. At this juncture, the parties' sole dispute is whether Plaintiffs can demonstrate that their protected activity was a substantial or motivating factor in PPB's conduct. Plaintiffs have submitted evidence demonstrating that officers indiscriminately used force against peaceful protestors on multiple occasions. On a few occasions, officers continued to fire tear gas canisters as people attempted to leave the protest area, effectively blocking their escape. One protestor was subjected to rubber bullets, tear gas, and a flash bang at close range as he was calmly walking towards the waterfront, trying to comply with officers' orders. Another was confronted by a group of seven officers, who rolled tear gas down the street towards her even as she informed the officers she was trying to go home.

These incidents demonstrate that preventing criminal activity near the Justice Center was not the sole purpose of PPB's use of force. Instead, officers may have been substantially motivated by an intent to interfere with Plaintiffs' constitutionally protected expression….

Plaintiffs have demonstrated a threat of immediate, irreparable harm in the absence of a TRO. Plaintiffs have shown a likelihood of success on the merits on their Fourth Amendment claim and at least a serious question as to whether they have been deprived of their First Amendment rights. There is a real and immediate threat that Plaintiffs will be deprived of these rights as protests continue….

The risk of irreparable harm is further heightened by the context in which these protests are occurring…. [T]he use of tear gas [during the coronavirus pandemic] may put protestors' health at risk, contributing to the increased, widespread infection of this lethal virus….

In theory, limits on the use of tear gas may impede officers' ability to protect themselves against potential violence from demonstrators. But any harm in limiting Defendant's use of tear gas is outweighed by the irreparable harm that Plaintiffs—engaged in peaceful protest—are likely to endure….

The Court therefore orders that PPB be restricted from using tear gas or its equivalent except as provided by its own rules generally. In addition, tear gas use shall be limited to situations in which the lives or safety of the public or the police are at risk. This includes the lives and safety of those housed at the Justice Center. Tear gas shall not be used to disperse crowds where there is no or little risk of injury….