qualified immunity

It is undisputed that police officers used reasonable force when they shot Angel Mendez. As officers entered, unannounced, the shack where Mendez was living they saw a silhouette of Mendez pointing what looked like a rifle at them. Yet, the Ninth Circuit awarded him and his wife damages because the officers didn’t have a warrant to search the shack thereby “provoking” Mendez.

All Supreme Court qualified immunity cases, including Ziglar v. Turkmen, Ashcroft v. Turkmen, and Hasty v. Turkmen, affect state and local governments. These cases raise issues that frequently come up in run-of-the-mill qualified immunity cases, in particular, whether the court defined the “established law” at a high level of generality instead of considering the specific facts of the case when deciding whether to grant or deny qualified immunity.     

A number of “out-of-status” aliens were arrested and detained on immigration charges shortly after 9/11. They claim they were treated in a “discriminatory and punitive” manner while confined and detained long after it was clear they were never involved in terrorist activities. They have sued a number of high level federal government officials including former Attorney General John Ashcroft, former Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Robert Mueller, former Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, James Ziglar, and two wardens and an assistant warden at the federal detention center where they were held.   

Mesa v. Hernandez provides a qualified immunity quandary. If Agent Mesa wins his qualified immunity claim, other government officials in the future may lose their qualified immunity claims. 

United States Border Patrol Agent Jesus Mesa, Jr., shot and killed Sergio Adrian Hernandez Guereca, a fifteen-year-old Mexican national, who was standing on the Mexico side of the U.S./Mexico border. At the time of the shooting Agent Mesa didn’t know that Hernandez was a Mexican citizen. 

The question of most interest to state and local governments in Mesa v. Hernandez is whether qualified immunity may be granted or denied based on facts – such as the victim’s legal status – unknown to the officer at the time of the incident.

In its second opinion of the term the Supreme Court ruled that a police officer should have been granted qualified immunity when he shot at a car whose driver had led police on a high speed chase to stop it instead of waiting to see if spike strips worked.

Taylor v. Barkes could have been a significant qualified immunity case. Prison officials asked the Supreme Court to resolve a circuit split over whether supervisors can be liable for constitutional violations caused by their failure to supervise. The Court “expess[ed] no view” on the vitality of supervisory liability instead concluding no clearly established constitutional right was implicated in this case.  

In a per curiam (unauthored) opinion the Court granted two prison officials qualified immunity related to an inmate’s suicide reasoning that no precedent at the time of the suicide established that an incarcerated person had a right to proper implementation of adequate suicide prevention protocols. So prison officials could not be liable for failing to supervise the contractor providing suicide screening.

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