By: Tom LeQuire
When defending government officials from constitutional claims for money damages, it is extremely important to understand the extent to which qualified immunity shields those officials from such claims. In two recent cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has emphatically stated the extent to which the qualified immunity doctrine specifically protects law enforcement officers from suit.
Qualified immunity from suit attaches to shield officials from civil liability when an official’s conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights which a reasonable person would have known. A clearly established right is one that is “sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.” According to the court, put simply, qualified immunity protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.
In Mullenix v. Luna, a case decided on November 9, 2015, the Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and stated Trooper Mullenix was entitled to qualified immunity from suit. Mullenix had shot and killed a suspect who was leading officers on a high-speed chase and had threatened to shoot at police officers if they did not abandon their chase. The Court said the Fifth Circuit had incorrectly decided the case based on general use of force rules and had not properly considered the specific circumstances faced by the officer.
It pointed out that it had repeatedly told courts not to define “established law” at a high level of generality but to determine whether the violative nature of particular conduct is clearly established. It went on to state that such specificity is especially important where the Court has recognized it is sometimes difficult for an officer to determine how the relevant legal doctrine (excessive force) will apply to the factual situation the officer confronts.
In a case decided on January 9, 2017, the Supreme Court issued a somewhat stinging reminder to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals on how to apply qualified immunity. In White v. Pauley, the Court pointed out it had issued a number of opinions in the prior five years reversing lower courts in qualified immunity cases. The Court stated it found it necessary to do so both because qualified immunity is important to society as a whole and qualified immunity is effectively lost if a case is erroneously permitted to go to trial.
In White, the Court found the Tenth Circuit also misunderstood the analysis to be used in qualified immunity cases and, instead of relying on general excessive force principles should have looked at the unique set of facts and circumstances faced by the officer as an important indication that the officer did not violate a clearly established right.
In these and other recent cases, the Supreme Court has sent a strong message that police officers are to be given maximum deference when sued for damages for use of excessive force. Unless the specific circumstances of the case and the particular conduct of the officer amount to plainly incompetent conduct or knowing violation of the law, the officer is to be given deference and the case should be dismissed prior to trial based on qualified immunity.
Tom LeQuire is the Managing Member of Spicer Rudstrom’s Chattanooga office and a senior partner. During the course of his nearly 40-year practice, Tom has defended clients in the trial and appellate courts in a wide variety of tort claims. In the last several years, he has continued that work, and he has primarily represented local governments. He has successfully defended claims ranging from accidents involving county-owned emergency vehicles to the alleged failure to maintain roadways and retaliatory discharge claims under state law.
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