United States Supreme Court Unanimously Fortifies Qualified Immunity for State Officials
In two closely watched cases, the Supreme Court on October 18, 2021 issued Per Curiam opinions in Rivas-Villegas v. Cortesluna , 595 U.S. __ (2021) and City of Tahlequah v. Bond, 595 U.S. __ (2021), granting Qualified Immunity in §1983 cases alleging excessive force during arrests. Both decisions overturned the Circuit Courts’ denial of Qualified Immunity.
The Decision-Making Process
The Court started its relatively brief discussion by reaffirming the standard for Qualified Immunity: “Qualified immunity attaches when an official’s conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or of which a reasonable person would have known … A right is clearly established when it is ‘sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.’” Qualified immunity applies to more than police officers, it applies to all governmental officials acting under color of state law.
The Court acknowledged the difficulty of determining the relative legal doctrine in a Fourth Amendment context, particularly excessive force. While the general standard for excessive force – as stated by the United States Supreme Court in Graham – must be known by every reasonable official: “whether excessive force [has been used] depends on the ‘facts and circumstances of each particular case, including the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.’”
Determining the Definition of ‘Clearly Established’
However, the Court then went on to note that the Graham standard is cast at a high level of generality, and therefore may only be relevant in establishing ‘clearly established’ in only the most obvious cases. Thus, to show ‘clearly established’ in a non-obvious case, a plaintiff must identify a specific case which puts the defendant on notice that his conduct violates a more specific standard. The Court examined the cases relied upon by the Circuit Court in both cases and concluded that none of them adequately put the officers on notice that their conduct violated the Fourth Amendment. The Court concluded by noting that: “Precedent involving similar facts can help move a case beyond the otherwise hazy borders between excessive and acceptable force and thereby provide an officer notice that a specific use of force is unlawful.”
It is important to note that the Court felt that in both cases the facts were not disputed. This of course is rarely the situation in excessive force cases.
It was also very significant that the Court once again questioned, but didn’t decide, if the case relied upon to establish the clearly established law, must be a decision of the United States Supreme Court or whether a Circuit Court case suffices.
The Practical Side of the Decision
The practical significance of the decision lies in how officials are trained, in that the Court seems to be searching for consistency and predictability about what amount of force is allowable in a given situation. A well-trained official will know if a given situation involves a similar situation that is the subject of a Supreme Court, or at the very least Circuit Court decision.
Training is Imperative
It would behoove those responsible for training to make sure that excessive force decisions are examined and where necessary disseminated. Having the ability to show that an official’s conduct comported with a standard set forth in court decisions would be invaluable in extricating individual officials from cases at early stages of the case. The decision emphasizes, rather than deemphasizes that an official must act in comportment with constitutional limitations. Doing so protects the official and his or her employer from liability for their actions.