Have you ever heard of someone being arrested and sent to jail for walking on the wrong side of the road? Probably not — because police officers never, or almost never, arrest people for such a trivial issue, even if it’s technically a crime. Yet, a police officer in the small town of Sunrise Beach, Missouri, says that’s why he arrested Mason Murphy.

On May 15, 2021, Mason was minding his own business, walking on the shoulder of a rural road when the police officer, Michael Schmitt, stopped him and ordered him to tell the officer his name. Schmitt gave various explanations for why he stopped Mason including — in the officer’s words later on—“I didn’t want him walking down my highway.” Murphy questioned the officer’s reasons and declined to identify himself. Murphy repeatedly asked Schmitt what crime he had committed and argued about Schmitt’s demand that Murphy identify himself; Schmitt argued back. Murphy was calm, stable on his feet, and compliant except for the officer’s demand that he identify himself. Schmitt and Mason argued about these topics for about nine minutes. Schmitt then arrested Mason and took him to jail.

At the jail, Schmitt struggled to come up with a crime to justify the arrest. Bodycam footage shows that Schmitt called the now-police chief, asking what crime he could charge Mason with or detain him on. The man on the other side couldn’t think of anything, so he advised Schmitt to call a prosecutor for more help. Schmitt also admitted that he brought Mason to jail because Mason didn’t identify himself. Ultimately, Mason spent two hours locked in a jail cell before officers released him. He was never charged with any crime in connection with the incident. 

After the bodycam footage the incident was released, Camden County Sheriff Tony Helms told the local paper that what happened to Mason in the jail was  :

“It was wrong. I was furious. We strive so hard and all it takes is one person, one person not following policies and procedures, one person threatening to do something like this to make all of us look bad. Just like any profession, there are good cops and there are bad cops. I can’t make any excuses for the type of behavior seen in the video. It was unacceptable and I apologize to the victim and to the people of Camden County.”

Mason sued Schmitt for arresting him in retaliation for his speech with the officer — speech that was protected by the First Amendment. He acknowledged that he was walking on the wrong side of the road, but he argued that his case should proceed because it is extremely rare for police to arrest pedestrians on the wrong side of the road. He asserted that he would not have been arrested if he hadn’t spoken his mind.

In a split decision, a three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Mason’s claim. The majority didn’t believe Mason’s assertion that police officers rarely arrest people for walking on the wrong side of the street and would not consider Schmitt’s statements made at the jail. Judge Grasz dissented on both points and would have allowed Mason’s claim go to forward.

Mason has partnered with the Institute for Justice to ask the United States Supreme Court to review his case after deciding another IJ retaliation case pending at the court. By bringing this case to the United States Supreme Court, IJ hopes to set a precedent that will protect individuals from being arrested in retaliation for exercising their First Amendment rights. Ultimately, IJ aims to safeguard the constitutional rights of all Americans and to hold those in power accountable for their actions.

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