Qualified Immunity Tag

Monday, April 2nd in a per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court granted, vacated, and remanded Kiesla v. Hughes, a qualified immunity case out of the Ninth Circuit. This is another instance of the Supreme Court reminding lower courts that they cannot analyze the clearly established prong of the qualified immunity inquiry at too high of a level of generality or utilize case law which was decided after the incident in question. In this case, police officers received a report that a...

The state-action immunity doctrine may be obscure but that doesn’t stop the Supreme Court for accepting a steady diet of cases involving the issue. State-action immunity provides states and, in some instances, local governments immunity from federal antitrust liability. In Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District v. SolarCity the Supreme Court will decide whether a lower court’s refusal to rule state-action immunity applies to a particular entity may be appealed immediately or only after the case is fully litigated.

Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach is a double redux. The Supreme Court ruled on this case in 2013 on a maritime issue. The Court agreed to decide the issue this case presents in 2011, but ultimately failed to rule on it then. What if a police officer arrests someone in retaliation for engaging in speech protected by the First Amendment but the officer also had probable cause to arrest that person for a different, legitimate reason? In Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach the Supreme Court will decide whether that person may sue the police officer for violating his or her First Amendment rights.

No matter the legal issue, excessive forces cases are difficult for state and local governments to win because they often involve injury or death (in this case of a totally innocent person). To win one unanimously likely says something about the problematic nature of the legal theory. In County of Los Angeles v. Mendez the Supreme Court rejected the “provocation rule,” where police officers using reasonable force may be liable for violating the Fourth Amendment because they committed a separate Fourth Amendment violation that contributed to their need to use force. The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to reject the Ninth Circuit’s provocation rule. Police officers entered the shack Mendez was living in without a warrant and unannounced. Mendez thought the officers were the property owner and picked up the BB gun he used to shoot rats so he could stand up. When the officers saw the gun, they shot him resulting in his leg being amputated below the knee. The Ninth Circuit concluded that the use of force in this case was reasonable. But it concluded the officers were liable per the provocation rule--the officers brought about the shooting by entering the shack without a warrant. (The Ninth Circuit granted the officers qualified immunity for failing to knock-and-announce themselves.) The Ninth Circuit also concluded that provocation rule aside, the officers were liable for causing the shooting because it was “reasonably foreseeable” that the officers would encounter an armed homeowner when they “barged into the shack unannounced.” 

What if a police officer arrests someone because the officer doesn’t believe the person is telling the truth and there is evidence the officer is right?  In District of Columbia v. Wesby the Supreme Court will decide whether, when the owner of a vacant house informs police he has not authorized entry, an officer assessing probable cause to arrest those inside for trespassing may discredit the suspects' claims of an innocent mental state.  Facts similar to those in this case may not arise very often. But police officers must assess claims of innocence in numerous other instances (theft, assault, even homicide).   Police officers arrested a group of late-night partygoers for trespass. The party-goers gave police conflicting reasons for why they were at the house (birthday party v. bachelor party). Some said “Peaches” invited them to the house; others said they were invited by another guest. Police officers called Peaches who told them she gave the partygoers permission to use the house. But she admitted that she had no permission to use the house herself; she was in the process of renting it. The landlord confirmed by phone that Peaches hadn’t signed a lease. The partygoers were never charged with trespass.  The partygoers sued the police officers for violating their Fourth Amendment right to be free from false arrest. To be guilty of trespass the partygoers had to have entered the house knowing they were doing so “against the will of the lawful occupant or of the person lawfully in charge.” The partygoers claimed they did not know they lacked permission to be in the house. 

The Supreme Court has agreed to decide cases accusing federal government officials at the highest levels of mistreating people investigated for possible terrorist connections after 9/11. All Supreme Court qualified immunity cases, including Ziglar v. Turkmen, Ashcroft v. Turkmen, and Hasty v. Turkmen, affect state and local governments. These cases raise issues that frequently come up in run-of-the-mill qualified immunity cases, in particular, whether the court defined the “established law” at a high level of generality instead of considering the specific facts of the case when deciding whether to grant or deny qualified immunity.

We didn’t learn much in Taylor v. Barkes. But we could have. Prison officials asked the Supreme Court to resolve a circuit split over whether supervisors can be liable for constitutional violations caused by their failure to supervise. Instead of requesting and holding oral argument before deciding the case, the Court summarily reversed the lower court in a per curiam (unauthored) opinion.  The Court “expess[ed] no view” on the vitality of supervisory liability instead concluding no clearly established constitutional right was implicated in this case. The Court granted two prison officials qualified immunity related to an inmate’s suicide reasoning that no precedent at the time of the suicide established that an incarcerated person had a right to proper implementation of adequate suicide prevention protocols. So prison officials could not be liable for failing to supervise the contractor providing suicide screening.

In a Supreme Court term not light on law enforcement cases City and County of San Francisco v. Sheehan was the most important police case of the term. Alas, we will have to wait for another day for the Supreme Court to decide whether Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires police officers to accommodate suspects who are armed, violent, and mentally ill when bringing them into custody. The Court did held that the officers in this case were entitled to qualified immunity.

Catching up on recent published decisions involving local governments:court collumn First Circuit
  • S. Kingstown Sch. Cmte v. Joanna S., No. 14-1177 (Dec. 9, 2014): The court ruled in Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act ("IDEA") case that settlement agreement relieved school committee of obligation to perform or fund evaluations, and remanded to determine whether Joanna S. is entitled to attorney's fees.
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