By Jonathan Stempel
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court on Monday said anti-abortion protesters may be entitled to recover attorneys' fees from a South Carolina sheriff's office that had stopped them from displaying graphic signs showing aborted fetuses at demonstrations.
In its first decision since the 2012-2013 term officially began last month, the court reversed a ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals against Steven Lefemine and Columbia Christians for Life, which had sought to recover the fees.
Lefemine brought his case after police in Greenwood County, South Carolina, told him and others at a 2005 demonstration to remove the signs or risk being ticketed for breaching the peace.
After police repeated the warning, Lefemine sued in 2008, citing violations of his rights under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
A federal district court permanently barred the police from imposing content-based restrictions on Lefemine's signs but refused to award attorneys' fees.
The 4th Circuit later upheld the fee denial, saying the permanent injunction did not make Lefemine a "prevailing party."
But in its unsigned decision, the Supreme Court said he was because the injunction had changed police behavior in a way that directly benefited him.
"Before the ruling, the police intended to stop Lefemine from protesting with his signs; after the ruling, the police could not," the court wrote. "That ruling worked the requisite material alteration in the parties' relationship."
The Supreme Court returned the case to a lower court to decide if any "special circumstances" might make the award unjust.
Steven Fitschen, a lawyer for Lefemine, said attorneys' fees in the case may reach hundreds of thousands of dollars, and that other protesters should welcome the decision.
"Protesters of all stripes, whose civil rights were violated by law enforcement, would have been at risk of losing fee awards," Fitschen said in a phone interview.
A lawyer for the Greenwood County police did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The case is Lefemine v. Wideman et al, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-168.
(Editing by Howard Goller and Bill Trott)