SCOTUS Declines Qualified Immunity Challenge

Federal police officers continue to be immune from lawsuits.

ABC/Yahoo (“Supreme Court rejects retired officer’s bid to curb legal immunity for police“):

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday denied the appeal of a retired federal agent seeking to challenge sweeping legal immunity for police officers after he was injured during an arrest and later blocked from suing for damages.

“This big guy grabbed my left hand and with his two hands, he jerked my arm as high as he could. Almost simultaneously, as this guy was jerking my arm, he put a chokehold on my throat very hard, very hurtful,” Jose Oliva, 76, said of the 2016 incident at the El Paso, Texas, Veterans Administration hospital. “I told them I can’t — I cannot breathe, let me go. I cannot breathe.”

Oliva, a Vietnam War veteran and longtime VA patient, underwent two surgeries to repair injuries he sustained. A federal appeals court rejected his bid to sue the officers for damages.

The Supreme Court’s decision to let that ruling stand — the latest in a string of police immunity cases it has refused to take up in the past year — suggests the justices are not eager to wade into a hot national debate over law enforcement and legal protections for officers that the court itself helped construct.

Qualified immunity, a legal doctrine established by the Court 50 years ago, affords officers broad protection against personal liability for constitutional violations in most cases. Oliva’s case also sought to challenge the added protection against civil rights lawsuits that federal officers enjoy under federal law.

While Congress expressly allows civil lawsuits against state and local law enforcement officials, it did not create a legal avenue to pursue claims against federal officials. Since 1971, the Supreme Court has sharply limited the right of Americans to sue federal employees for damages under the Constitution.

The report contains quite a bit more background. There is no opinion here, as there simply weren’t four justices willing to take the case.

Certainly, Oliva’s case was a strong one in terms of the sheer injustice of a citizen having no legal remedy when wronged by the state. And, as his attorneys rightly note, there are now so many federal law enforcement officers (his assailants were glorified security guards for the VA) that the immunity is much broader than in 1971.

Given that this is a half-century-old doctrine interpreting statutory law, my instinct is that Congress, not the courts, should reset the boundaries. But, of course, Congress seldom acts these days. Indeed, a major law enforcement reform bill is currently stalled precisely over this issue.

It’s a strange facet of American culture that we’re hyper-sensitive on issues of personal freedom, railing much more than our European cousins against even relatively minor restrictions like being required to wear a mask during a pandemic and yet simultaneously accord enormous deference to police officers. While the tide seems to be turning a bit in the wake of the repeated citizen videos of police abusing, even killing, unarmed citizens, the instinct is to protect cops at almost all costs. So, it’s unlikely that public pressure will force Congress’ hand on this issue.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Police
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Scott says:

    I noticed the other day in same article in the Express-News this statement:

    “They don’t know if Mr. Oliva has dynamite strapped to his chest or he’s got a 45 handgun that he’s going to just start shooting people indiscriminately,” said Lopez.

    Consider that statement and now consider this:

    Texans could carry handguns without a permit under bill headed to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk

    A measure long sought by conservative activists allowing Texans to carry handguns without a license is on the cusp of becoming law after the Texas Senate approved a compromise on the bill Monday, sending it to Gov. Greg Abbott.

    So police are saying they need to act more aggressively first because they are afraid that someone will be armed which is now more likely.

    Good job everybody

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  2. mattbernius says:

    This is definitely a disappointment, but not surprising. We know that Thomas has been interested in revisiting the QI decision (see: https://www.courthousenews.com/justice-thomas-calls-for-supreme-court-to-review-qualified-immunity/).

    But the court keeps dodging these cases, year after year after year.

    1
  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    the instinct is to protect cops at almost all costs.

    Which is why every time I hear Blue Lives Matter or see the blue lined flag my instinctive response is, “No shit, Sherlock.”

    Also the contradiction that is Derek Chauvin going to prison for murder while at the same time being immune to civil lawsuits for said murder is a wonder of American jurisprudence to behold.

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  4. dazedandconfused says:

    I’m not in favor of opening officers up to being personally sued by the people they arrest.

    The proper party to sue is the cop’s employer. The job involves physically restraining people, and if cops could be personally sued I’m afraid only fools would bet their house on not making a mistake, or not encountering someone like Don Trump, who has a team of litigious shysters on call 24/7. Moreover the issue is a training one. As demonstrated in numerous trials, cops have been mostly acting as they have been trained, effectively ordered, to act. This is a training issue. The specter of civil suits IMO is fixing the wrong problem, and every time that happens the right problem grins.

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  5. Erik says:

    @dazedandconfused: I would find this argument that the department, not the officer, should be sued more compelling if the department could then take disciplinary action against the officer who caused such lawsuits

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  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @dazedandconfused: As demonstrated in numerous trials, cops have been mostly acting as they have been trained, effectively ordered, to act.

    Really? They’ve been trained to shoot unarmed people? They’ve been trained to choke the life out of people? They’ve been trained to beat people to death? They’ve been trained to ignore people in medical distress? Ad nauseum.

    They’ve been ordered to commit the above acts???

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  7. dazedandconfused says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:
    Mostly, like I said.

    The main issue is the shooting. This is due to the current trends in training within many academies, but not all. IMO it’s a military force-protection-first mindset which encourages officers to feel they are about to be shot at any second and inculcates a notion it’s better to be a live defendant than a dead cop. This has been re-enforced in multiple trials in which it was essentially determined that if a cop is frightened he can shoot, as that is essentially the net result of their training.

    Some believe placing them personally at financial risk is the fix. I disagree.

  8. Gustopher says:

    @dazedandconfused: I would want to explore making them carry malpractice insurance. Normal people carry insurance for the low-probability/high-consequences scenarios.

    And then let the free market find the bad cops (and departments).

    Likely the cops who stood by and watched Chauvin kill someone slowly would be deemed a poor risk, even if they don’t get charged and convicted. Probably get priced out of the insurance market.

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  9. dazedandconfused says:

    @Gustopher:

    Perhaps. I don’t like it because people have to get killed to sort out the good from the bad, and it doesn’t directly affect the root cause, which is IMO training and attitudes. You don’t see this kind of crap in places like Oakland or NYC very much because they are large enough to fund their own departmental academies, custom tailored to their environs. I challenge anyone to find a more challenging work environment than Oakland/Richmond, yet somehow the cops there encounter very tough customers on a daily basis but hardly ever shoot one for twitching at the wrong time. That didn’t happen by accident.

    Oakland learned the hard way in the 60s and 70s that a PD can’t function well at all without the benefit of the doubt from the people they police.

    Secondly because cops can’t be independent contractors. It’s a quasi-military environment and sometimes cops have to obey orders, and sometimes without hesitation. I don’t want to let their bosses, the chiefs and municipalities, off the hook. I want the precise opposite.

  10. Kathy says:

    Allow individual officers to be sued only if the department or agency that employs them is sued as well. Let the jury apportion liability to the department/agency, or officer(s), or both.

  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @dazedandconfused: The main issue is the shooting

    Ummmm No. Eric Garner disagrees. Laquan McDonald disagrees. George Floyd disagrees. Tamir Rice disagrees. Walter Scott disagrees. Ronald Greene disagrees. Philando Castille disagrees. Luis Rodriguez disagrees. Michael Brown disagrees. Hell’s bells, Rodney King disagrees.

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  12. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @dazedandconfused: I don’t like it because people have to get killed to sort out the good from the bad, and it doesn’t directly affect the root cause, which is IMO training and attitudes.

    You do realize the exact same thing can be said of doctors and nurses?

  13. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @dazedandconfused: Secondly because cops can’t be independent contractors. It’s a quasi-military environment and sometimes cops have to obey orders, and sometimes without hesitation.

    Bullshit Bullshit Bullshit. Especially the bolded part for which there is ZERO need for. Side note, did you know that being a crossing guard is more dangerous than being a cop? Maybe we’d be better served by arming them with AK-47s to shoot stupid drivers.

    Oakland learned the hard way in the 60s and 70s that a PD can’t function well at all without the benefit of the doubt from the people they police.

    50 to 60 years later and they still can’t function with the benefit of a doubt.

  14. dazedandconfused says:

    @Kathy:
    What happens to a police officer when they have to detain someone like a Trump, a guy with unlimited legal resources and a whole pack of lawyers at his beck and call?

    Only a fool would take the job of physically detaining people if they could be easily personally sued.

  15. dazedandconfused says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:
    BART cops aren’t OPD.

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  16. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    I think you’ll find that it will be more a case of “they won’t function without the benefit of the doubt”. I don’t doubt that your heart is in the right place on this, but open them up to being sued individually and the result will be – not might be, will be – two-fold. You’ll see 1) A mass exodus from law enforcement coupled with grossly more difficult recruiting – end result, fewer officers on the street and increasing crime and 2) The officers that do stay will premise their actions on “will this get me sued?” instead of “what is the appropriate response?” resulting in less active policing and increasing crime. For an example of this, look no further than Minneapolis. End of the day – more crime – violent and otherwise – is the price you have to be willing to pay for these proposals.

    People, especially people who have no direct experience with the realities of policing, expect there to be a simple, easy answer to this problem where everybody wins and it’s one delightful ongoing happy camper bake sale. There isn’t one.

  17. dazedandconfused says:

    Ozark,
    As an embellishment to Harvard’s post, check out the highly popular (in bad academies) “Grossman Training.”

    https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/08/warrior-cop-class-dave-grossman-killology.html

    You won’t see this crap at Oakland PD academy, except as an example of how not to think. However you will see it at nearly all the general academies, which pump out cops for most of our 10,000+ police departments.