The decision comes several weeks after the Secret Service was rocked by scandal over agents hiring prostitutes in Colombia while assigned to protect President Obama during an official visit there. The scandal slammed the credibility of the elite protective service at a time when the Cheney “assault” case was pending before the justices.
The high court chose not to decide the broader issue of whether Secret Service agents acting with probable cause are always immune from civil lawsuits claiming they retaliated against a person for making comments the agents considered politically offensive.
Instead, the justices decided only that the law in this area is not clearly established. The Supreme Court said that given the unsettled state of the law the agents were not given fair warning that they might face a civil lawsuit for violating someone’s free speech rights.
In his lawsuit, Howards charged that Secret Service agents falsely accused him of “assaulting” then-Vice President Cheney during a 2006 public appearance. He said the agents made the assault accusation as a pretext to punish him for expressing his opposition to the Bush administration’s decision to wage war in Iraq.
Federal agents arrested Howards and turned him over to local police for prosecution. The charges were later dropped.
After Howards filed his lawsuit, depositions taken of agents who had been on the scene during Howards’s encounter with Cheney varied widely concerning what actually took place. The Secret Service agent at the center of the encounter, Virgil Reichle, was subsequently transferred to Guam.
The issue in the case, Reichle v. Howards (11-262), was whether Mr. Reichle and a second agent, Dan Doyle, were immune from First Amendment lawsuits as part of their job protecting the president and top government officials.