VODAK v. CHICAGO (March 17, 2011)

In early 2003, a group of people in Chicago opposed to the United States' anticipated invasion of Iraq wanted to express their opposition. They wanted to hold a march at the same time as the invasion, but they did not know when that would happen. A Chicago ordinance requires a permit for a demonstration and typically requires five days notice of the march's date and route. For "good compelling cause," the City will act within two days. When, as here, the two-day requirement cannot be met, the City has an informal practice of waiving the permit requirement. Although non-permitted demonstrations typically use the same standard route, the police and demonstrators never agreed on a route. The invasion took place on March 19. The protesters gathered on March 20. Part of the way along their announced route, thousands of the protesters detoured. They marched toward Michigan Avenue, a major commercial thoroughfare in Chicago. The police blocked access to the street and told the march organizers to return to their starting point or disperse. They threatened to arrest anyone entering Michigan Avenue. The police claim they also shouted these warnings through bullhorns. Most of the marchers either dispersed or began to return to their starting point. Along the way, hundreds of marchers started approaching Michigan Avenue again on a different cross street. There is a dispute in the record regarding the marchers' presence on that street -- there is some evidence that at least some of the marchers thought they were directed there by the police. The police again blocked Michigan Avenue. This time, however, they also sealed off the marchers in the other direction. They started arresting the marchers and any other person who happened to be on that one block stretch of Chicago Avenue. Most of those arrested were released without being charged -- others had their charges dismissed. Two lawsuits were filed against the City and several police officers pursuant to § 1983, alleging violations of the First and Fourth amendments, as well as state law. Judge Kendall (N.D. Ill.) dismissed both suits against the officers on qualified immunity grounds and against the City because no policymaker had been responsible for the officers' conduct. Plaintiffs appeal.

In their opinion, Circuit Judges Posner and Wood and District Judge Adelman reversed and remanded. The Court first noted that the police were well within their rights in blocking Michigan Avenue. A large protest march was getting out of control. They could, and did, order the crowd to disperse or return to their starting point. But, on the undisputed record, they only communicated their orders to the organizers. According to hundreds of affidavit filed in the record, many of the marchers were unaware of any order to disperse or return. The Court emphasized this point because the only reason the police gave for the arrests several blocks away from where they gave the orders is the marchers' defiance of these orders. At the time of the arrest, the police had no good reason to believe that the people they were arresting knew they were violating a valid police order. Of course, the police only needed probable cause to make the arrests. But because there was no permit, no agreed-upon route, and no effective means of communicating an order to the thousands of marchers, a police officer on Chicago Avenue could not have a reasonable belief that the hundreds of marchers there knew of the orders. The Court rejected the District Court's conclusion that the right allegedly violated was not "clearly established" at the time. Decades before the march, the Supreme Court held that, if police revoke permission to march, they must give notice of the revocation before arresting alleged violators. In fact, the Court even stated that this is one situation that is so obvious that precedent is not required. The police cannot give permission to march, then withdraw the permission without telling anyone, and arrest the marchers. With respect to the dismissal of the City, the Court also disagreed with the district court. In order to hold the city liable, plaintiffs must show that the conduct was authorized or directed by a policymaker. But that does not mean only the City Council. Here the City Council defers to the Superintendent of Police as the sole policymaker with respect to demonstrations. In addition to his sole policymaking role, the Superintendent monitored and approved the very police conduct at issue. That satisfies Monell.