Tuesday, January 24, 2017

U.S. Supreme Court Bolsters Qualified Immunity

In White v. Pauly, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous per curiam (unauthored) opinion overturning a lower court's denial of qualified immunity to a police officer in an excessive force case. Law enforcement officers are frequently sued for money damages where they are alleged to have violated a person's constitutional rights in the performance of their duties. Qualified immunity protects officers from such lawsuits where the law they violated isn't "clearly established."

Officer White arrived late to an ongoing police action outside the home of Daniel and Samuel Pauly. Upon approaching the house already surrounded by two other officers, Officer White heard Daniel and Samuel Pauly yelling “we have guns,” followed by shots being fired from the house. Shortly after, Samuel opened the front window and pointed a handgun in Officer White’s direction. After another officer fired several shots at Samuel and missed, Officer White shot and killed Samuel.

Relying on the language of Tennessee v. Garner as clearly establishing the law that officers must give a warning where feasible, the Tenth Circuit denied Officer White qualified immunity reasoning that a reasonable officer in White's position would have known he should have given a warning before shooting despite the seriousness of the threat.   The appellate court  “concluded that a reasonable officer in White’s position would have known that, since the Paulys could not have shot him unless he moved from his position behind a stone wall, he could not have used deadly force without first warning Samuel Pauly to drop his weapon.’

The Supreme Court reversed, finding no no clearly established law in this case. "Clearly established federal law does not prohibit a reasonable officer who arrives late to an ongoing police action in circumstances like this from assuming that proper procedures, such as officer identification, have already been followed. No settled Fourth Amendment principle requires that officer to second-guess the earlier steps already taken by his or her fellow officers in instances like the one White confronted here."  The appellate court failed to identify a case where an officer acting under similar circumstances was held to have violated the Fourth Amendment.

This ruling represents a significant win for law enforcement. In denying qualified immunity to officers, trial courts must consider the particularities of the case rather than relying on general legal principles as providing officers with clear notice their actions are unconstitutional. The Court explained, "[t]oday, it is again necessary to reiterate the longstanding principle that 'clearly established law' should not be defined 'at a high level of generality.'" Otherwise, qualified immunity would be converted "into a rule of virtually unqualified liability simply by alleging violation of extremely abstract rights.”