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Religion and the Law

Unconstitutional to Pressure Arrestee to Be Baptized in Exchange for Leniency


From Judge Travis McDonough's opinion Thursday in Riley v. Hamilton County Gov't (E.D. Tenn.):

In this atypical civil-rights case, Plaintiff Shandle Marie Riley brings several claims stemming from a traffic stop that ultimately resulted in her baptism—yes, baptism—by on-duty Hamilton County Sheriff's deputy Defendant Daniel Wilkey. [Deputy Jacob] Goforth, who was also on duty and was present for the desacralized rite, argues that he is entitled to qualified immunity on Riley's 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims ….

The court concluded that Riley could go forward with:

  • her claims that the baptism, which she allegedly agreed to in exchange for Wilkey's offer of leniency, violated the Establishment Clause, because it unconstitutionally coerced religion and unconstitutionally endorsed religion (partly because it lacked a "conceivable secular purpose");
  • her claims that she was seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment for purposes of the baptism, because a seizure for those purposes was not "reasonable"; and
  • her claims that Goforth could potentially be liable for failing to intervene to stop the allegedly unconstitutional actions.

The court also concluded that, if the facts were as Riley alleged, Goforth's actions wouldn't be shielded by qualified immunity, because they would be clearly unconstitutional. "There are genuine disputes of material fact concerning whether Riley was coerced into the baptism, whether she would have faced harsher penalties had she refused to be baptized, and whether Goforth should have known that Riley was being coerced. This is enough to preclude summary judgment on this issue."

An excerpt of the facts and the legal analysis:

On February 6, 2019, around 9:15 p.m., Wilkey pulled Riley over in the driveway of her ex-mother-in-law Diane Smith's home. Wilkey approached Riley's driver-side window and asked her what she had in the car. Riley confessed that she had a marijuana roach in her cigarette pack.

Wilkey then opened the door for Riley to exit the car and directed her to place her hands on the roof. Wilkey searched her person for about twenty seconds and then handcuffed her. Another deputy, Tyler McRae, arrived while Wilkey was handcuffing her. After a minute or so of searching, Riley turned around and spoke to Wilkey face-to-face. After they spoke, Wilkey searched her pockets and eventually directed her to wait at the front of his patrol car. Riley testified that, while searching her this second time, Wilkey inappropriately touched her crotch. Wilkey found the marijuana cigarette upon searching Riley's person.

Wilkey searched Riley's vehicle while she waited near the patrol car. According to Riley, Wilkey "tore [her] car apart" searching for other contraband. After searching the vehicle and talking with her at length, Wilkey removed the handcuffs. He then directed Riley to pull up her shirt and shake out her shirt and bra, which she did. Wilkey did not find any additional contraband.

Wilkey and Riley next discussed religion. They spoke for another thirty minutes, and McRae left sometime during this conversation. Riley testified that Wilkey asked her whether she had been baptized. She responded with concern that she may not be ready. But, according to Riley's testimony, Wilkey told her "God [was] talking to him" and assured her that, if she got baptized, he would only write her a citation and she would be free to go about her business. According to Riley, Wilkey also indicated that he would speak at court on her behalf if she agreed. Riley decided to go along with this plan because she"[did not] want to go to jail." She also "thought [Wilkey] was a God-fearing, church-like man who saw something … in [her], that God talked to him," and testified that "it felt good to believe that for a minute." When later asked whether Wilkey "gave [her] the option not to do this," Riley answered:

Upon Wilkey's suggestion, Riley went into Smith's house to get some towels for the baptism. Riley was only in the house for a couple minutes, where she spoke briefly to her son, and asked Smith if she could borrow some towels. Smith asked her whether that was safe, and Riley replied "I don't know. We'll find out." After Riley emerged from the house with towels, Wilkey issued her a citation. Riley and Wilkey returned to their respective vehicles, and Riley followed Wilkey in her car for about twelve minutes to Soddy Lake.

That night, Goforth was also on patrol. Wilkey called Goforth while driving to Soddy Lake "and requested [his] presence at the Soddy Lake boat ramp to witness a baptism." Goforth believed Wilkey was baptizing someone who he knew personally. Goforth did not learn that Riley had been cited for a criminal offense until he arrived at the boat ramp. Goforth avers that he "asked [Wilkey] if he had thought about [baptizing Riley] in an effort to provoke reconsideration," but that Wilkey "wanted to proceed."

Wilkey arrived at Soddy Lake around 10:36 p.m. and waited in his car for several minutes. Once Goforth arrived, Wilkey introduced Riley and Goforth to each other, stating that Riley wanted to be baptized. In preparation for the baptism, Wilkey told Riley, "I'm going to be honest with you, …I'm going to strip down to my skivvies," but he asked Riley to keep her clothes on. Wilkey removed all his clothing except his underwear and t-shirt, and Riley remained fully clothed except for her shoes. Wilkey baptized Riley by quickly submerging her in the water while holding her with one hand on her back and the other hand on her front.

Goforth filmed the baptism on his cellphone. Goforth avers that he did so "to protect all persons present and document the event." There is some dispute as to where Wilkey was touching Riley during the actual baptism: Riley stated one of his arms was touching her breast, but in the video Goforth took of the baptism, it appears as though Wilkey was only holding her arm. Wilkey and Riley were in the water for approximately one minute and twenty seconds total.

Once out of the water, Riley and Wilkey hugged each other for roughly four seconds.   When asked why she had hugged Wilkey, Riley testified that she "was just trying to get the heck out of there," and that she left immediately without talking with Wilkey or Goforth. Riley also testified that Goforth smirked at her while she was drying herself off, though Goforth denies interacting with her in any way. Riley further stated that, at that point, "[she] knew it had nothing to do with God [or] … with saving [her or] … with [anyone] being a good person. It had something to do with power and control[.]" Goforth avers that "Wilkey and Riley spoke pleasantly to each other[,] laughing and joking among themselves" and that Riley "appeared to be participating in the event voluntarily and with enthusiasm." At 11:00 p.m., all three walked back to their vehicles. There was some conversation and laughter before Riley departed, and Goforth and Wilkey continued talking after she left….

"A person is seized by the police and thus entitled to challenge the government's action under the Fourth Amendment when the officer, by means of physical force or show of authority, terminates or restrains [her] freedom of movement through means intentionally applied." … When a suspected seizure is affected without the use of physical force, there must be both a show of authority from the officer and submission by the detainee. "[W]hat may amount to submission depends on what a person was doing before the show of authority[.]"The Supreme Court has noted that "the threatening presence of several officers, the display of a weapon by an officer, some physical touching of the person of the citizen, or the use of language or tone of voice indicating that compliance with the officer's request might be compelled" can connote a seizure, even when the individual never attempted to leave. However, "[i]n the absence of some such evidence, otherwise inoffensive contact between a member of the public and the police cannot, as a matter of law, amount to a seizure of that person."

Goforth argues that Riley was no longer seized when she arrived at the boat ramp for the baptism because she drove her own car to the lake and "was no longer physically restrained in any way." But genuine fact issues preclude summary judgment on this basis. Because of the absence of audio in the dashcam footage, the specifics of the conversation that led to the baptism are unclear. Although Goforth contends that, from his perspective, Riley freely consented to the baptism, Riley denies this.

And taking the facts in the light most favorable to Riley, a reasonable person under the circumstances could have believed she was not free to leave until the baptism was completed. Riley had already been pulled over, handcuffed, and detained for nearly two hours by an on-duty, uniformed officer driving a marked police vehicle. She had surrendered marijuana she knew she was not legally allowed to have. Riley also testified that she went along with the baptism at least in part because she did not want to go to jail. She further testified that Wilkey told her that, if she agreed to be baptized, "he'd give [her] a citation and [she] could go on about [her] business." Wilkey had also called and requested the presence of an additional on-duty officer for the baptism. It would not be unreasonable for a person facing these circumstances to believe that, if she attempted to leave before the baptism was over, she would have been prevented from doing so. Accordingly, Goforth is not entitled to summary judgment on the grounds that Riley was not seized for the purposes of the baptism….

Though Goforth's argument rests primarily on the absence of a seizure, the Court notes that only unreasonable seizures violate the Fourth Amendment…. To determine the reasonableness of an officer's conduct, the Court balances "the governmental interest which allegedly justifies official intrusion" against the intrusiveness of the seizure on the individual's rights.

If the facts demonstrate that Riley was seized, that seizure will have been unreasonable. No government interest is furthered by the baptism of a detainee by an on-duty law-enforcement officer. To the contrary, "[i]t is beyond dispute that, at a minimum, the Constitution guarantees that the government may not coerce anyone to support or participate in religion or its exercise, or otherwise act in a way which establishes a state religion or religious faith or tends to do so." "[I]f citizens are subjected to state-sponsored religious exercises, the State disavows its own duty to guard and respect that sphere of inviolable conscience and belief which is the mark of a free people." Baptism of detainees by law-enforcement officers runs directly counter to the government's substantial interest in guaranteeing the free exercise of religion without government intervention. Any … seizure for the purpose of conducting a baptism intruded upon Riley's liberty without furthering any government interest and was therefore unreasonable….

[C]oerced participation in a Christian baptism—an overtly religious act with no secular purpose—[is] unlawful…. Even if Riley was not coerced into the baptism, … [a] state actor improperly endorses religion "if a reasonable observer would think that that the activity is a governmental endorsement of religion." Under this test, the "reasonable observer" is "deemed aware of the history and context of the community, as well as the context in which the challenged government activity took place." Applying this test, courts have found that the government endorses religion when the act at issue is inherently religious in nature.

A baptism, too, is an unambiguously religious practice that does not have a conceivable secular purpose. There is no indication in the record that either officer understood or intended the baptism as anything but an exercise of faith and religion. Any reasonable observer would conclude that the effect of the baptism was an unequivocal endorsement of Christianity….

Congratulations to plaintiff's lawyers, Andrew C. Clarke, Howard Brett Manis, and Robin R. Flores.