U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court rejects cases on qualified immunity used to shield police officers

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The U.S. Supreme Court refused Monday to hear several cases challenging the doctrine of qualified immunity, which often shields police officers accused of misconduct.

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the court’s denial of certiorari in one of those cases involving a homeless man bitten by a police dog, report the Washington Post, USA Today and Politico.

The Washington Post said the Supreme Court turned down eight cases involving qualified immunity, while Politico said the high court refused to hear at least seven cases.

Qualified immunity allows police to escape civil liability for violating a person’s rights under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act when those rights are not “clearly established.”

According to Politico, some courts applying the doctrine “have required an extraordinarily precise match between the misconduct alleged in one case and in a prior one in order to find a violation of someone’s constitutional rights.”

The homeless man seeking certiorari, Alexander Baxter, was caught in the act of burglarizing a house. Baxter claimed that he had already surrendered and had his hands in the air when officers released a police dog that bit him in the arm.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Cincinnati held that the police officers weren’t liable because their conduct didn’t violate a clearly established right. The court said Baxter had been hiding before police found him in the home, and the dog was well trained to only bite once. In those circumstances, Baxter’s right to be free of excessive force wasn’t clearly established, the appeals court said.

The 6th Circuit said Baxter’s case was more akin to a case that upheld the use of a well-trained canine to apprehend a fleeing suspect in a dark and familiar location. And it was less like a case that had found that police couldn’t use an inadequately trained dog to apprehend, without warning, two suspects who weren’t fleeing, the 6th Circuit said.

“Baxter does not point us to any case law suggesting that raising his hands, on its own, is enough to put [the police officer] on notice that a canine apprehension was unlawful in these circumstances,” the 6th Circuit said.

Both Thomas and Justice Sonia Sotomayor have criticized the doctrine of qualified immunity, but Thomas was the only dissenter when the court refused to hear Baxter v. Bracey. (His dissent begins at page 52 of the PDF.)

“I have previously expressed my doubts about our qualified immunity jurisprudence,” Thomas wrote. “Because our Section 1983 qualified immunity doctrine appears to stray from the statutory text, I would grant this petition.”

Section 1983 makes no mention of defenses or immunities, Thomas said. Its text giving people a right to sue “applies categorically to the deprivation of constitutional rights under color of state law.”

For the first century after the enactment of Section 1983, the Supreme Court didn’t recognize any immunity under the law for good-faith official conduct. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the court began developing the immunity doctrine, culminating in a 1982 case requiring an inquiry into clearly established law, Thomas said.

“There likely is no basis for the objective inquiry into clearly established law that our modern cases prescribe,” Thomas said.

The American Civil Liberties Union had represented Baxter before the Supreme Court.

“The Supreme Court’s deeply disappointing decision today to punt on the critical issue of official immunity, in this time of national reckoning over police violence, places the ball squarely in Congress’ court,” said ACLU legal director David Cole in a statement. “We have seen the deadly consequences play out on the streets, and black Americans have largely paid the price.”

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