Supreme Court Denies Prison Officers Qualified Immunity

In a very brief, unauthored opinion the Supreme Court denied qualified immunity in Taylor v. Riojas to a number of correctional officers who confined Trent Taylor to a “pair of shockingly unsanitary cells” for six days. The Court didn’t hear oral argument in this case, and Justice Barrett didn’t participate in it.

In the last decade the Supreme Court has repeatedly overturned lower court refusals to grant police officers qualified immunity. It has been criticized for not doing the opposite—as it has done in this case—overturning a lower court’s grant of qualified immunity.

Trent Taylor claimed the first cell he was confined in was covered in feces “all over the floor, the ceiling, the window, the walls,” and even inside the water faucet. The second, frigidly cold cell, “was equipped with only a clogged drain in the floor to dispose of bodily wastes.”

The Fifth Circuit held that Taylor’s confinement conditions violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The Fifth Circuit granted the officers qualified immunity because “[t]he law wasn’t clearly established” that “prisoners couldn’t be housed in cells teeming with human waste” “for only six days.”

The Supreme Court noted that “[q]ualified immunity shields an officer from suit when she makes a decision that, even if constitutionally deficient, reasonably misapprehends the law governing the circumstances she confronted.” It reversed the Fifth Circuit’s grant of qualified immunity because “no reasonable correctional officer could have concluded that, under the extreme circumstances of this case, it was constitutionally permissible to house Taylor in such deplorably unsanitary conditions for such an extended period of time.”

Justice Alito wrote a concurring opinion. He opined that the Court shouldn’t have heard this case because it involves a misapplication of the law to the facts, which is a “quintessential example” of the kind of case the Supreme Court almost never reviews. According to Justice Alito, “today’s decision adds virtually nothing to the law going forward. The Court of Appeals held that the conditions alleged by petitioner, if proved, would violate the Eighth Amendment, and this put correctional officers in the Fifth Circuit on notice that such conditions are intolerable. Thus, even without our intervention, qualified immunity would not be available in any similar future case.”

Justice Alito also pointed out that even if the Court had refused to review the Fifth Circuit’s decision on Taylor’s cell confinement claim, he might have been “satisfied with whatever relief he obtained” on another claim the Fifth Circuit allowed to continue to trial related to correctional officers refusing to take Taylor to a toilet.

Given that the Supreme Court did review the Fifth Circuit’s grant of qualified immunity on Taylor’s cell confinement claim, Justice Alito agreed with the Court’s conclusion that the officers should be denied qualified immunity.

Justice Thomas dissented in this case though he didn’t state his reasons why. Recently, Justice Thomas has questioned whether the doctrine of qualified immunity is good law.