Qualified Immunity

Qualified Immunity - Qualified Immunity Qualified CRJU...

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Unformatted text preview: Qualified Immunity Qualified CRJU E491P, Police Liability Spring 2011, Mr. Smith Section 1983 and Immunity Defenses Section Remember that both the State and state officials acting in “official capacity” are immune from suits for damages, under section 1983. State officials may be sued in “individual capacity,” however, for damages. Municipalities and their officials are not immune from section 1983 damage actions but in order to attach liability to the municipality, the plaintiff must show that the “policy” of the municipality was the “moving force” behind the injury suffered. If the plaintiff can not show a policy connection, the resulting suit may be filed against the official in “individual capacity.” When an individual capacity claim is filed against a public official under Section 1983, that official will likely raise one of two immunity defenses: Absolute Immunity or Qualified Immunity. Absolute and Qualified Immunity Absolute Section 1983 does not specifically provide for absolute immunity for any parties, but the Supreme Court has determined that some officials are absolutely immune from suit. The Supreme Court has also recognized a “qualified immunity” defense to section 1983 actions, in certain circumstances, for state and local officials and employees, who do not enjoy absolute immunity. Absolute Immunity Absolute Some state and local officials are entitled to absolute immunity such that even if the official acted in bad faith or with malice, or violated clearly established federal law, the official is, nonetheless, immune from suit. Absolute immunity is extremely limited in scope and generally only protects legislators, judges, and prosecutors. State and regional legislators are absolutely immune, as long as they are engaged in traditional legislative functions. Local legislators, such as city council members and county commissioners, have been guaranteed absolute immunity since 1998. Judges are absolutely immune as long as they are performing adjudicative functions. State prosecuting attorneys who are acting within the scope of their duty in presenting the state’s case are absolutely immune. Whether an official is entitled to assert absolute immunity depends upon the function the official was performing at the time the injury arose, not the title that the official possessed. As an example, a judge would have absolute immunity from suit for a decision made in the course of adjudicating a case, but would not have absolute immunity for a decision made while carrying out an executive or administrative function, such as hiring, firing or disciplining an employee of the court. Likewise, a state prosecuting attorney would have absolute immunity for participating in a probable cause hearing, but not for giving legal advice to the police about an investigation. Qualified Immunity Qualified In the 1982 case of Harlow v. Fitzgerald the Supreme Court attempted to clarify the circumstances under which a public official should be held to be immune from liability for civil damages. In doing so, the Court established an “objective standard,” based on two separate considerations, and established a rule that shields government officials from suits for damages under certain circumstances. The Harlow Rationale The In establishing an objective standard for qualified immunity, the Supreme Court weighed plaintiffs’ interests in having their constitutional rights vindicated against the public’s need for governmental officials to efficiently perform their duties. Prior to Harlow, courts evaluated public official conduct under a standard that required them to act in subjective good faith. In Harlow, the Court shifted to an objective standard which it viewed as a more appropriate means of protecting the public’s interest while also allowing officials more time to be devoted to public service. Qualified Immunity: The Harlow Rule Qualified A public official performing a discretionary function enjoys qualified immunity in a civil action for damages, provided his or her conduct does not violate clearly established federal statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. Qualified immunity means that the official enjoys immunity from being sued, not just a defense to the allegations raised in a law suit. Although qualified immunity is called an “affirmative defense,” once the public official raises it, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show that the right allegedly violated by the official was “clearly established” at the defendant’s conduct. A determination of qualified immunity by a court merely means that the actions of the official did not violate “clearly established” law of which the official reasonably should have been aware. It does not mean that a constitutional violation did not, in fact, occur; just that the official is not responsible for it. Qualified immunity is an individual capacity defense which is not available to a municipality. How the Rule Works How When applying the objective qualified immunity standard to a section 1983 claim, a court must address two separate, although related, issues: (1) Has the plaintiff established that the public official committed a violation of a constitutional or federal statutory right?; and (2) If so, was the right clearly established at the time the official committed the violation? Both components of the Harlow analysis have created problems for courts who must decide, first, whether an official’s actions have violated a recognized protection and, second, whether, a reasonable person in the official’s situation would have recognized that the actions The Order of Analysis The A difficulty in qualified immunity analysis lies in deciding which Harlow issue should be evaluated first. In other words, how should a court go about determining determine whether the official has violated a federal protection? Many federal protections, such as those encompassed in the Fourth Amendment, are “high level” protections that provide little operative guidance in specific cases. As an example, the right to be free from a warrantless search has many exceptions that may vary extensively based on the facts confronted by a police officer in a given situation. Yet the protections of the Fourth Amendment are generally considered to be uniform, regardless of the location, or jurisdiction, in which a search or seizure occurs. Even if a court is able to affirmatively determine that the violation of a right has occurred (the first Harlow element), it may not be able to clearly determine whether the right was “clearly established” at the time it was violated (the second Harlow element). To resolve the second Harlow element in the affirmative (i.e. that the right was “clearly established”) a court would have to find some degree of correspondence between the facts of the case under consideration and the facts from prior cases decided at the time the official acted. If there is a close correspondence, then the officials would not receive qualified immunity because the case law would have put the official on notice that his or her conduct was clearly unconstitutional. But, if there were little or no correspondence, the official would not have had notice and would be entitled to qualified immunity. Saucier v. Katz (2001) (2001) In this decision, the Supreme Court mandated an ordered two­step protocol for addressing qualified immunity claims. First, a court must decide whether the facts alleged make out a violation of a constitutional right. Then, and only after an affirmative answer can be given to the first consideration, may the court decide whether the right was “clearly established” at the time of the violation. The Saucier court held that whether “the facts alleged show the officer’s conduct violated a constitutional right . . . must be the initial inquiry,” thus creating “rigid order of battle” which prevents a court from looking to whether the right was clearly established without first establishing that a violation had occurred. The mandatory Saucier sequence created many problems for lower courts who felt that it unnecessarily required them to analyze “difficult constitutional questions” that were unrelated to an ultimate determination related to qualified immunity. “Clearly Established Law” The second Harlow element requires courts to determine whether the law under which the officer is operating is “clearly established.” In several cases involving police officers and the Fourth Amendment, the Supreme Court has explained that “clearly established” law does not refer to general principles of law. Instead, the Court has simply stated that qualified immunity applies if a reasonable officer under the same circumstances could not have known his or her conduct was illegal. In Anderson v. Creighton (1986), the Supreme Court stated that “the very action in question, however, [need not have] been previously held unlawful,” but if “in light of preexisting law the unlawfulness [was] apparent,” then qualified immunity does not apply. This statement, however, has provided little useful guidance. Clem v. Corbeau (Fourth Circuit- 2002) (Fourth The case involved a mentally ill man, Clem, who was shot by one of two police officers who responded to a call for assistance made by Clem’s wife. The facts in the case show that both officers were aware that Clem was mentally ill, that he was not in possession of a weapon of any sort, and that he was not behaving in a threatening manner towards anyone. Nonetheless, based on Clem’s lack of willingness to see a doctor as his wife recommended, Officer Corbeau initially provoked Clem by standing in front of him and yelling at him, demanding that he go to the doctor and, then spraying him twice with pepper spray when he would not agree to do so. Ultimately, Corbeau fired his service weapon and hit Clem three times. The Court of Appeals applied the Saucier protocol to determine whether Corbeau should be entitled to qualified immunity. The District Court had denied Corbeau’s request for qualified immunity and he appealed. The Court’s analysis was as follows: As to whether “the facts alleged show that” Officer Corbeau's “conduct violated a constitutional right,” the Court held as follows: [V]iewed in the light most favorable to Clem, the evidence is that Corbeau shot a mentally disabled, confused older man, obviously unarmed, who was stumbling toward the bathroom in his own house with pepper spray in his eyes, unable to threaten anyone...[I]t would require no improper second­ guessing, or the application of “20­20 ... hindsight,” to conclude that Officer Corbeau violated Mr. Clem's Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive police force. As to whether in using excessive force the officer made a “reasonable mistake as to the legality of [his] actions,” the Court held that the question is “whether it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted.” The Court noted “when the defendant’s conduct is so patently violative of the constitutional right that reasonable officials would know without guidance from the courts that the action was unconstitutional, closely analogous pre­existing case law is not required to show that the law is clearly established.” “In the case at hand, Clem has proffered evidence that Officer Corbeau shot and severely injured him, even though a reasonable police officer in Corbeau's position would have perceived Clem to be unarmed, blinded, and stumbling, in no condition to pose any threat to the officer. On this set of facts, the law in 1998 provided clear guidance to a police officer that he was not free to use deadly force.” “Clem has offered evidence that he was ‘nondangerous’ and that firing three shots at close range was an application of force that could have killed him. Therefore, on the basis of Garner alone, (which the Supreme Court decided in 1985), we would have to conclude that the constitutional right at issue in this case was ‘clearly established’ in November 1998.” Brosseau v. Haugen (2004) Brosseau In December 2004, the Supreme Court announced its decision in Brosseau v. Haugen, attempting to further elaborate on how courts should evaluate whether law enforcement force is excessive for qualified immunity purposes. The case a involved a section 1983 action brought by Kenneth Haugen against Officer Rochelle Brosseau of the Puyallup, Washington, Police Department in which Haugen alleged that Brosseau’s shooting him with a firearm constituted excessive force and violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The trial court, following the mandatory Saucier two step sequence, found first that Brosseau's use of force might have violated Haugen's constitutional rights. Then, applying the second Saucier step, the trial court determined that she was not entitled to qualified immunity and that, therefore, the matter should proceed to trial. The issue before the Supreme Court was simply whether the Court of Appeals decision which had reversed the District Court’s ruling that Brosseau was entitled to qualified immunity for her actions in shooting Haugen should be reversed. Because the District Court had granted Brosseau qualified immunity there had been no trial in the case, but the Court of Appeals decision, which determined that Brosseau should have not been granted qualified immunity, directed that the case should be remanded to the District Court for trial. The question before the Supreme Court hinged on whether the Court of Appeals had correctly applied the Saucier two step analysis in determining that the law was “clearly established” at the time that Brosseau shot Haugen that to do so was unlawful. The Facts Brosseau, a Puyallup, Washington police officer, heard a report that Haugen, who was wanted on felony no­bail warrant for drug and other offenses, was involved in a fight with two other men in the yard of his mother’s house and responded to the scene. When Brosseau arrived, Haugen ran from his mother’s yard and hid in the neighborhood. Some time later, he was observed by Brosseau and ran from her and jumped into the driver’s side of his Jeep Cherokee, parked in front of his mother’s house and locked the door. Brosseau pointed her gun at Haugen, and ordered him to get out of the Jeep, but Haugen ignored her command and continued to look for the keys so he could get the Jeep started. Brosseau hit the driver’s side window several times with her gun, which failed to force Haugen to exit and, on the third or fourth strike, the window shattered. Brosseau unsuccessfully tried to grab the keys and struck Haugen on the head with the gun but Haugen managed to start the Jeep. As the Jeep began to move, Brosseau jumped back and fired one shot through the rear driver’s side window hitting Haugen in the back. In overturning the District Court’s grant of qualified immunity, the Court of Appeals held that the issue of Brosseau’s use of deadly force was governed by Garner and its rule, that it is unreasonable for an officer to “seize an unarmed, nondangerous suspect by shooting him dead,” was violated by Brosseau’s conduct. The Supreme Court bypassed the Court of Appeals determination that Brosseau’s action was unconstitutional, however, and focused on the second prong of the Saucier protocol, effectively stating that even if Brosseau’s action was deemed to be unconstitutional, she would nonetheless be entitled to qualified immunity, and thus should avoid trial, if her action was not prohibited by “clearly established law.” The Supreme Court faulted the Court of Appeals for analyzing Saucier’s second prong at “a high level of generality,” stating that “[t]he present case is far from the obvious one where... Garner alone offer[s] a basis for decision.” The Court stressed that the critical issue is whether the officer had fair notice that the conduct in issue was unlawful, something to be determined by the state of the law at the time of the conduct and noted that “the contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right." Based on this analysis, the Court found that differing conclusions set out in different cases "undoubtedly show that this area is one in which the result depends very much on the facts of each case” and that none of those cases squarely governed the facts confronted by Brosseau. Hence her actions fell in the “hazy border between excessive and acceptable force,” did not violate any law that was clearly established, and should not deny her the protection of qualified immunity Pearson v. Callahan (2009) (2009) In 2009, the Supreme Court retreated from, but did not overrule, its 2001 decision in Saucier v. Katz, holding that its two­step procedure was no longer an “inflexible requirement” and that judges are now permitted to exercise discretion in determining which step of the qualified immunity analysis to apply first. In recognizing thatthe Saucier process “should no longer be regarded as mandatory,” the Court acknowledged its inherent problems stating: “Deciding whether there was a constitutional right when it was obvious that such a right was not clearly established resulted in substantial expenditure of judicial and private resources, and the constitutional precedent developed in such litigation was often of little value.” After the Pearson case, a court’s analysis of the first Saucier prong has become discretionary. Lower courts will now have the discretion to proceed directly to the second question, whether the law was clearly established at the time of the conduct such that an officer would be on notice that the conduct was unconstitutional, without ever deciding the underlying constitutional question. ...
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This note was uploaded on 06/06/2011 for the course CRJU E491P taught by Professor Smith during the Spring '11 term at South Carolina.

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