qualified immunity

In a per curiam (unauthored) unanimous opinion in City of Escondido v. Emmons the Supreme Court granted one police officer qualified immunity and instructed the Ninth Circuit to decide again whether another officer should have been granted qualified immunity. As it has done many times before, the Supreme Court criticized the Ninth Circuit for defining the right at issue (here to be free from excessive force) at too high a level of generality.

In April 2013 police arrested Maggie Emmons’ husband at their apartment for domestic violence. A few weeks later, after Maggie’s husband had been released, police received a 911 call from Maggie’s roommate’s mother, Trina. While Trina was on the phone with her daughter she overheard Maggie and her daughter yelling at each other and Maggie’s daughter screaming for help.

When the officers knocked on the door no one answered but they were able to try to convince Maggie to open the door by talking to her through a side window. An unidentified male told Maggie to back away from the window. Officer Craig was the only officer standing outside the door when a man walked out of the apartment. Officer Craig told the man not to close the door but he did and he tried to brush past Officer Craig. Officer Craig stopped him, took him to the ground, and handcuffed him. The man was Maggie’s father, Marty Emmons. He sued Officer Craig and Sergeant Toth, another officer at the scene, for excessive force.

Numerous academics have complained about the Supreme Court frequently reversing lower court decisions that have denied police officers qualified immunity. In Sause v. Bauer the Court reversed (and remanded) a grant of qualified immunity.

In a unanimous per curiam (unauthored) opinion, the Supreme Court remanded this case back to the lower court to reconsider its decision granting qualified immunity to police officers who ordered a person to stop praying.

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.

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