qualified immunity

It is rare for the Supreme Court to rule that a lower court improperly granted a police officer qualified immunity. It is perhaps even rarer for the Supreme Court to clarify its tried and true qualified immunity standard.

In Hernandez v. Mesa the Supreme Court ruled that the lower court erred in granting qualified immunity to a police officer based on facts unknown at the time of the shooting, but favorable to the officer. More generally, it clarified that the facts learned after an incident are not relevant to granting or denying qualified immunity.  

In Ziglar v. Abbasi, the Supreme Court in a 4-2 decision granted a number of high level federal executive agency officials qualified immunity related to a claim they conspired to violate the equal protection rights of a number of undocumented immigrants held on suspicion of a connection to terrorism after September 11, 2001. 

State and local government officials can be sued for money damages in their individual capacity if they violate a person’s constitutional rights.  Qualified immunity protects government officials from such lawsuits where the law they violated isn’t “clearly established.”

This case doesn’t involve any state or local government officials. But every qualified immunity case matters.

In a unanimous opinion 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 officer 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.  

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). 

In its amicus brief in County of Los Angeles v. Mendez the State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) asks the Supreme Court to reject the “provocation” rule, where any time a police officer violates the Fourth Amendment and violence ensues, the officer will be personally liable for money damages for the resulting physical injuries.

Everyone agrees police officers used reasonable force when they shot Angel Mendez. As officers entered, unannounced, the shack where Mendez was staying they saw a silhouette of Mendez pointing what looked like a rifle at them. The Ninth Circuit awarded him and his wife damages because the officers didn’t have a warrant in violation of the Fourth Amendment to search the shack thereby “provoking” Mendez.

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