Something to Smile About??


Smiles. The universal sign of happiness.

We even impart this idea to our pets. We think dogs are smiling constantly, but we can’t really know if that’s true. No big deal, because a smile never hurt anyone as far as I can tell.

But not everyone appreciates a smile. Especially not officers Phillips and Hollis of the Harris County jail.

One day they were booking Mr. Christopher Johnson, who dared to smile for his mug shot.The officers told him to stop, and questioned why anyone would be smiling under such circumstances.

Johnson replied that he always smiled when having his photo taken, and also that he knew he was going to beat his case.

Well, the officers didn’t think too much of that, and told Johnson that they would make him stop smiling. They then grabbed him by the neck and choked him for about 30 seconds. There’s even a photo of Johnson, still smiling with two sets of hands around his neck.

This incident led to a lawsuit. Johnson claimed that the officer violated his First Amendment right to freedom of expression. But here’s the thing: when you are suing police officers, you have to demonstrate two things:

1.There was a clearly established specific right in place AND

2.The officer(s) knew about it.

Turns out, there’s no precedent establishing a First Amendment right to smile in a booking photo. There are a lot of cases that talk about how a booking photo is taken when a person is in a vulnerable position, and how when they are released, the photo is often associated with the assumption that the person is guilty. And there’s a very strong argument that people SHOULD be allowed to smile in a booking photo. But that doesn’t matter for Mr. Johnson. What matters is that there isn’t yet a clearly established right to do so. The Court ruled against his First Amendment claims in Johnson v. Harris County.

So Mr. Johnson has no case. Except for excessive force on which he will probably prevail. So I suppose he still has a reason to keep smiling.


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