qualified immunity

In District of Columbia v. Wesby the majority of the Supreme Court ruled D.C. police officers had probable cause to arrest individuals for holding a “raucous, late-night party in a house they did not have permission to enter.” All nine of the Justices ruled in favor of granting qualified immunity to the police officers. The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief in this case supporting D.C.  

Police were called to a home in D.C. around 1AM based on complaints of loud music and illegal activity. The house was dirty with no furniture downstairs except a few metal chairs. In the living room the officers found “a makeshift strip club”; they found “more debauchery upstairs.” While many partygoers said they were there for a bachelor party no one could identify the bachelor.

Two of the women working the party said that “Peaches” was renting the house and had given them permission to be there. Police officers called Peaches who told them she gave the partygoers permission to use the house. But she ultimately 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 charged with, but never prosecuted for, disorderly conduct.

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).