March 21, 2012
The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments Wednesday in a case involving the arrest of a Colorado man who was thrown in jail after telling Vice President Cheney in 2006 that the Bush administration's policies in Iraq were "disgusting."
Environmental consultant Steven Howards is suing the Secret Service agents who arrested him, contending that the arrest violated his First Amendment rights because it was nothing more than retaliation for the views he expressed to the vice president. The case pits the need for protecting public officials against the rights of citizens to express their views to the people elected to represent them.
What makes this case doubly fascinating is the fact that even the Secret Service agents involved in the arrest do not agree on what happened. The agents who actually saw the encounter testified they saw no threatening action.
In contrast, the agent who made the arrest, Virgil Reichle, accused the others of covering up, and some of Reichle's fellow agents have testified that he asked them to change their reports to match his. All have acknowledged that if any of these accusations is true, it would amount to a crime under federal law.
Most of what happened that day in 2006 is no longer in dispute. Steven Howards had just dropped off his 8-year-old son at a piano lesson in Beaver Creek, Colo., when he saw Vice President Cheney standing in the open shopping area near the ski lift, shaking hands and talking to people.
"I walked up to him and told him that I thought his policies in Iraq were disgusting, and I walked away, and then I left and picked up my child at piano camp," says Howards.
About 10 minutes later, Howards was back in the area, but had become separated from his son. The agents, who didn't know Howards had lost track of his son, said they saw him looking anxious.
Agent Reichle of the Denver office went over to Howards and asked if he would answer a few questions about his conversation with Cheney. Howards said no and told Reichle that if he didn't want people accosting Cheney, he should "keep Cheney out of public places."
"The Secret Service agent got furious," Howards says, adding that he quickly found himself handcuffed "with my hands behind my back and I was being charged with felony assault of the vice president."
Though Howards initially told Reichle he had not touched the vice president, after reflecting on the encounter, he later conceded that he was wrong. He says he patted the vice president on the shoulder, meaning no harm. The Secret Service has since variously described Howards as having patted Cheney with an open palm or hit him on the shoulder with an open palm.
"If there would have been some threat to the vice president, I would have been down in the pavement when the interaction occurred, not arrested 10 minutes later," says an incredulous Howards.