What happened to African-American motorist Kevin Campbell should not happen to anyone living in a free society. But at least a federal appeals court recently reaffirmed the denial of a qualified-immunity defense to a law enforcement officer whose egregious conduct flagrantly violated both the First and Fourth Amendments.

The ordeal for Campbell began on June 7, 2016, when he was driving his wife’s minivan in Allen Park, Mich. His wife had purchased the minivan recently and the vehicle had a temporary tag. Police officer Daniel Mack saw the minivan and pulled Campbell over.

Mack asked for Campbell’s drivers’ license and vehicle registration information. Campbell gave Mack his state identification card because he did not have a driver’s license. Mack asked Campbell to exit the vehicle.

Officer strip searches man and tightened cuffs after man complained of too-tight handcuffs

When Campbell exited the vehicle, Mack handcuffed him and placed him in his police cruiser. Campbell complained about the tightness of the handcuffs, to which Mack replied, “That’s the loosest they’re going to get.” Mack then accused Campbell of stealing the minivan.

Mack and his accompanying police dog searched Campbell’s vehicle and found no contraband. However, Mack had the vehicle towed to the police station. Mack brought Campbell to the booking area, where he initiated a search of Campbell. When Campbell again complained about the handcuffs, Mack tightened them even more. 

Mack forced Campbell to remove his pants, stating: “You’ve got it f…ing in your f…ing ass crack, that’s where you got it.” Campbell protested the strip search but to no avail. Mack anally probed Campbell and probed his genitals, again finding no contraband.

Campbell alleges Fourth and First Amendment rights violated

After this horrific event, Campbell filed a federal lawsuit, alleging that Mack had violated his Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures and his First Amendment right to be free from unlawful retaliation. 

Mack claimed that he was entitled to qualified immunity, a defense for government officials when they do not violate clearly established constitutional law. A federal district court denied Mack’s motion for qualified immunity.

6th Circuit rejects officer's defense of qualified immunity

On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed the denial of qualified immunity in Campbell v. Mack

On the Fourth Amendment issue, the 6th Circuit noted that a police officer needs some individualized suspicion to conduct a traffic stop. In this case, Mack had neither probable cause or reasonable suspicion that Campbell had done anything wrong. “Because a reasonable jury could conclude that Mack lacked any objective basis for stopping Campbell, Mack is not entitled to qualified immunity,” the panel wrote.

Regarding the First Amendment issue, the 6th Circuit panel also found that Mack was not entitled to qualified immunity. The panel explained that to establish unlawful retaliation, a plaintiff needs to show the following: 

  1. The plaintiff engaged in protected conduct;
  2. An adverse action was taken against the plaintiff that would deter a person of ordinary firmness from continuing to engage in that conduct; and
  3. There was a causal connection between elements one and two – that is, the adverse action was motivated at least in part by the plaintiff’s protected conduct.

Court says jury should decide whether officer retaliated because of man's complaint

Campbell engaged in protected conduct when he complained about the tight handcuffs and the strip searching. He also suffered adverse actions, as his wrists were harmed by the overly tight handcuffs and his human dignity was violated by the groping and strip searching. The panel also found that there was at least a jury question as to whether Mack engaged in his conduct because Campbell complained. 

“Mack should have known that further tightening Campbell’s handcuffs and engaging in aggressive strip search and/or body cavity searches in retaliation for Campbell’s asserting his First Amendment rights violated clearly established law,” the panel wrote.

What happened to Kevin Campbell should not happen in a free society. Individuals have a right to voice their objections to law enforcement officials without being handcuffed too tightly and invaded by body-cavity searches.   

David L. Hudson, Jr. is a law professor at Belmont who publishes widely on First Amendment topics.  He is the author of a 12-lecture audio course on the First Amendment entitled Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment (Now You Know Media, 2018).  He also is the author of many First Amendment books, including The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech (Thomson Reuters, 2012) and Freedom of Speech: Documents Decoded (ABC-CLIO, 2017).