Two Recent en banc Decisions Exemplify the Injustice, Impracticality, and Persistent Confusion Inherent to Qualified Immunity

JAY SCHWEIKERT, CATO INSTITUTE

In the last week, the Fifth and the Eighth Circuits, sitting en banc, have each issued major, fractured decisions on the subject of qualified immunity – the judge-made defense to civil rights claims under Section 1983, which shields state actors from liability for their misconduct, even when they break the law. In Cole v. Hunter, decided yesterday, the Fifth Circuit, in an 11-7 decision, affirmed the denial of summary judgment for two defendant police officers, who shot a teenage boy and then lied about what happened. The lawsuit brought by the victim and his family will therefore be able to go to trial, making this one of the rare instances where a civil rights plaintiff is able to overcome qualified immuniity. But in Kelsay v. Ernst, decided last week, the Eighth Circuit held, 8-4, that a police officer was entitled to qualified immunity, after he had grabbed a small woman in a bear hug and slammed her to ground – because she walked away from him. Although the courts here reached different outcomes, both cases amply illustrate the legal, practical, and moral infirmities with qualified immunity. The fractured decisions and many separate opinions in both cases also make clear that the doctrine is on increasingly shaky footing with both the judiciary and the general public.

I. Cole v. Hunter: A rare but narrow victory for a victim of egregious police misconduct

This Fifth Circuit case arose out of an incident in Garland, Texas in October 2010, when police were looking for Ryan Cole, then a 17-year-old boy, who had reportedly been walking around the neighborhood with a handgun. Ryan was seen by some officers and ordered to stop, but Ryan pointed the gun at his own head and walked away toward a wooded area. When Ryan reemerged, a group of officers observed him for about five seconds and did not announce themselves or give any warning. Then, while Ryan was facing away from them with the gun still pointed at his head, one or more of the officers fired at him, striking him several times and causing him to involuntary discharge his own gun into his skull and brain. When two of the officers were questioned after the shooting, they falsely claimed that Ryan had turned to face them and pointed his gun at them before they fired – an assertion belied by ample forensic and physical evidence (specifically, the location of Ryan’s bullet wounds, and the location of shell casings and Ryan’s blood).

Ryan and his family brought a civil rights suit against these officers, claiming that they used excessive force and fabricated evidence in violation of Ryan’s Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The district court denied qualified immunity to the defendants at summary judgment, a panel of the Fifth Circuit affirmed, and the Fifth Circuit then agreed to rehear the case en banc. The court then held, 11-7, that a reasonable jury could have found that Ryan posed no threat to the officers, and that it was clearly established that “shooting a mentally disturbed teenager, who was pointing a gun the entire time at his own head and facing away from the officer, in an open outdoor area, and who was unaware of the officer’s presence because no warning was given prior to the officer opening fire, was unlawful.” Although the defendants presented a starkly different view of the facts, the majority correctly recognized – as courts often fail to do in qualified immunity cases! – that it lacked jurisdiction to consider the officers’ competing factual narrative in this appeal. Rather, the disputed facts would have to be resolved by a jury.

Seven judges dissented, however. The principal dissent, by Judge Edith Jones, accused the majority of defining “clearly established law” at too high a level of generality, arguing that even if the facts clearly established that Ryan posed no threat (and thus that shooting him violated the Fourth Amendment) the relevant question for purposes of qualified immunity was “whether every reasonable officer in this factual context would have known he could not use deadly force” – and then arguing that no prior cases involved this precise factual context. This framing in the abstract is dutiful to the Supreme Court’s qualilfied immunity jurisprudence, but in application, it’s clear that the degree of specificity employed by the dissent would be practically impossible to overcome. To wit, the dissent went on to say:

[T[he importance of grounding the inquiry in a specific factual context cannot be overstated. In this case, if Officer Hunter had stood a hundred feet away from Cole, or Cole had not been turning toward the officers, or Cole had put the handgun in his pocket and wasn’t touching it, the analysis of qualified immunity could be quite different.

On the one hand, the dissent is correct that the Supreme Court has insisted that immunity analysis be “particularized” to the facts of individual cases. On the other, the example of factual distinctions used by the dissent here plainly illustrate that there will never be a prior case involving all of the potentially relevant facts – and even the Supreme Court has purported to say that a case exactly on point is unnecessary. Thus, while the dissent’s analysis is not a wholly unreasonable application of existing precedent, it demonstrates how the “clearly established law” standard is inherently amorphous, and incapable of consistent, predictable application.

Most notably, Judge Don Willett filed a separate dissent in this case. Although he would have held that “the Supreme Court’s unflinching, increasingly emphatic application of ‘clearly established law’ compel[led] dismissal,” the bulk of his opinion is devoted to explaining that “[t]he entrenched, judge-invented qualified immunity regime ought not be immune from thoughtful reappraisal.” Judge Willett’s dissent therefore echoes his recent criticisms of qualified immunity in Zadeh v. Robinson, although he did stress that the Supreme Court has “several ‘mend it, don’t end it’ options,” which would substantially revise the doctrine without eliminating it entirely. Also, he again discussed the Cato-organized cross-ideological amicus brief from Doe v. Woodard, noting that “perhaps the most ideologically diverse amici ever assembled” were urging the Supreme Court to reconsider qualified immunity.

II. Kelsay v. Ernst: Greenlighting egregious and unnecessary police violence against the supposed victim of a crime

Melanie Kelsay, her three children, and an adult friend of hers were swimming at a public pool in Wymore, Nebraska. She and her friend were engaged in what she called “horseplay,” but some onlookers thought he might be assaulting her and called the police. The police arrested her friend and put him in a patrol vehicle, even though she repeatedly told them he hadn’t assaulted her; they then decided to arrest her, the alleged victim of this non-crime, because she was “getting in the way of the patrol vehicle door.” While talking with Deputy Matt Ernst, Kelsay saw that her daughter had gotten into an argument with a bystander, and tried to go check on her. Ernst grabbed her arm and told her to “get back here,” but released her. Kelsay then said she needed to go check on her daughter, and again began walking toward her. At that point, without giving any further instructions, Ernst ran up behind her, grabbed her, and slammed her to the ground in a “blind body slam” maneuver, knocking her unconscious and breaking her collarbone.

Kelsay then brought a Section 1983 suit against Ernst, and the district court denied qualified immunity, but a panel of the Eighth Circuit reversed, 2-1. The Eighth Circuit then agreed to rehear the case en banc, and affirmed the panel’s grant of qualified immunity, in an 8-4 decision. The majority, of course, relied on the idea that there were no prior cases involving the “particular circumstances” of this case; i.e., no prior cases specifically held that “a deputy was forbidden to use a takedown maneuver to arrest a suspect who ignored the deputy’s instruction to ‘get back here’ and continued to walk away from the officer.” No case exactly on point, qualified immunity, Q.E.D. The principal dissent by Chief Judge Lavenski Smith correctly noted that that the Supreme Court has never required “a case directly at point,” and that here, an ample body of case law would have “put a reasonable officer on notice that the use of force against a non-threatening misdemeanant who was not fleeing, resisting arrest, or ignoring other commands violates that individual’s right to be free from excessive force.”

To make matters worse, the majority refused even to decide whether Ernst’s conduct did, in fact, violate Kelsay’s Fourth Amendment rights. So any officer could engage in exactly the same misconduct tomorrow, and it still would not be “clearly established” that the conduct was unlawful. Judge Steven Grasz wrote a separate dissent taking issue with this particular aspect of the court’s decision. Though acknowledging that courts have discretion under Pearson v. Callahan to grant immunity without deciding the merits, he argued that the exercise of such discretion was  “inappropriate in this case as it perpetuates the very state of affairs used to defeat Ms. Kelsay’s attempt to assert her constitutional rights.” Judge Grasz clearly grasps the circular nature of qualified immunity, noting that the judiciary’s persistent refusal to decide constitutional questions under Section 1983 “imposes a judicially created exception to a federal statute that effectively prevents claimants from vindicating their constitutional rights.”

III. The rising tide of opposition to qualified immunity

Two circuit courts recently decided to take qualified immunity cases en banc, even though neither case involved any new legal questions or suggested reversals of circuit precedent; that fact itself is a testament to how important this issue has become, and how much rising pressure there is to modify or abolish this doctrine. Cole and Kelsay hardly stand alone as examples of recent or ongoing high-profile qualified immunity cases. Just last month, the Eleventh Circuit issued a truly appalling decision in Corbitt v. Vickers, granting immunity to a deputy sheriff who shot a ten-year-old child lying on the ground, while repeatedly attempting to shoot a pet dog that wasn’t posing any threat. The Supreme Court unfortunately denied cert in Doe v. Woodard at the end of its last term, but there’s another outstanding cert petition explicitly calling for the Court to reconsider qualified immunity (Baxter v. Bracey), which will be considered at the long conference on October 1st. And there will probably be additional cert petitions challenging one or more of the decisions in CorbittKelsay, and Cole.

In other words, this issue isn’t going away. Day by day, more and more lower court judges add their voices to the growing chorus calling upon the Supreme Court to reconsider this noxious doctrine, and agitation by public policy groups across the ideological spectrum continues to grow. Some of the Democratic presidential candidates have even started to call for the abolition of qualified immunity. The day of reckoning may well be coming soon.


Jay Schweikert is a policy analyst with the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice. His research and advocacy focuses on accountability for prosecutors and law enforcement, plea bargaining, Sixth Amendment trial rights, and the provision and structuring of indigent defense. Before joining Cato, Jay spent four years doing civil and criminal litigation at Williams & Connolly LLP. He holds a J.D. from Harvard Law School, where he was an Articles Editor for the Harvard Law Review, and chaired the Harvard Federalist Society’s student colloquium program. Following law school, Jay clerked for Judge Diane Sykes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and Judge Laurence Silberman of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. He holds a B.A. in political science and economics from Yale University.


Used with the permission of the Cato Institute / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0


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