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Claim based on ‘amplified preaching’ fails

Where an Elizabeth City police officer had a reasonable basis to arrest a man in connection with amplified preaching at a potato festival for his willful offense of resisting, delaying or obstructing, his First Amendment claims failed. Where his challenge to the city’s ordinance and policy was groundless, the city was awarded attorneys’ fees.


Joseph Lee Caraway filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action against Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and two members of its police force, Cathy Hewitt and Jamie LaCombe, alleging violations of his First Amendment rights in connection with his arrest for amplified preaching during the 2016 North Carolina Potato Festival. Caraway also raised facial challenges to a provision of the city’s code of ordinances and the city’s special event policy, and as-applied challenges to the policy.

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of defendants on Caraway’s facial challenges and, during a jury trial on the remaining claims, granted judgment as a matter of law in favor of defendants. The court later granted attorneys’ fees in favor of defendants with respect to Caraway’s facial challenges, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988.


The parties agree that, in addressing the court’s Rule 50(a) ruling, the dispositive issue is whether probable cause existed to arrest Caraway. From this court’s thorough review of the record, the district court did not err in determining that probable cause existed, as a matter of law, to arrest Caraway for the North Carolina offense of resist, delay or obstruct, which is a class two misdemeanor. Caraway’s arguments that he did not resist, delay or obstruct Hewitt in the exercise of her duties are unpersuasive. Additionally, a reasonable officer could have determined, based on the undisputed facts before Hewitt, that Caraway acted willfully.

Attorneys’ fees

A prevailing defendant in a civil rights suit is entitled to recover attorneys’ fees under § 1988 only if “the plaintiff’s claim ‘was frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless, or . . . the plaintiff continued to litigate after it clearly became so.’”

Here, the district court appropriately concluded at summary judgment that Caraway lacked standing to raise a facial challenge the ordinance and policy—even under the relaxed standards for establishing standing applicable to facial challenges based on overbreadth. While standing is independent of the merits of a claim, the court’s standing analysis relied on conclusions that highlighted the lack of substantive foundation for Caraway’s facial claims.

Ultimately, after thoroughly reviewing the parties’ arguments, this court finds no error in the district court’s conclusion that neither the ordinance nor the policy, on its face, colorably attempted to regulate or restrict speech, expression or religion. While Caraway emphasizes the length of the district court’s standing analysis, that threshold jurisdictional ruling, was complicated by the need to address the intricacies of First Amendment standing doctrines and apply those doctrines to claims that did not squarely fit within the traditional First Amendment rubric. Accordingly, Caraway’s facial First Amendment challenges to the policy and ordinance were groundless and without foundation, and the district court acted within its broad discretion in awarding attorneys’ fees as to those claims.


Caraway v. City of Elizabeth City North Carolina, Case Nos. 19-224, 20-1294, May 4, 2021. 4th Cir. (per curiam), from EDNC at Elizabeth City (Britt). Frederick H. Nelson and David J. Markese for Appellant. Dan M. Hartzog Jr. and Katherine M. Barber-Jones for Appellees. VLW 021-2-163. 8 pp.