Supreme Court cautions lower courts against expanding qualified immunity
The U.S. Supreme Court on January 9 chastised lower courts for being too eager to deny qualified immunity to police in Sec. 1983 actions.
“Clearly established law” for qualified immunity purposes cannot be defined at a “high level of generality,” but must be “particularized” to the facts of a case, the Court ruled. The Court, in White v. Pauly, held that a police officer was entitled to qualified immunity because the lower courts, which had denied immunity, were unable to identify a case where an officer acting in similar circumstances was held to have violated the Fourth Amendment.
Police had surrounded Daniel and Samuel Pauly’s house after one of them was involved in a traffic incident. Police called Officer Ray White for assistance. Officer White arrived and took cover behind a stone wall. He then heard one of the Pauly brothers say “We have guns,” and saw Daniel fire two shotgun blasts out the backdoor. Samuel then opened a window and pointed a gun in White’s direction. White shot and killed Samuel. Samuel’s estate sued White for violating Samuel’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force. White argued he was entitled to qualified immunity because Samuel’s right to be free from deadly force under these facts was not “clearly established.”
The District Court and Court of Appeals denied qualified immunity. The appellate court relied on Supreme Court case law holding that the reasonableness of an officer’s use of force depends on whether the officer is in danger at that moment, and whether warnings have been given to the suspects. Since White was safely positioned behind a stone wall, the appellate court held that he could not shoot without first warning Samuel to drop his weapon.
The Supreme Court reversed, in a unanimous per curiam opinion.
The Court began by noting that over the “last five years” it had reversed a number of denials of qualified immunity by lower courts.
“Today, it is again necessary to reiterate the longstanding principle that ‘clearly established law’ should not be defined ‘at a high level of generality,’” the Court said. Otherwise, plaintiffs would be able to create “virtually unqualified liability simply by alleging violation of extremely abstract rights.”
“The panel majority misunderstood the ‘clearly established’ analysis: It failed to identify a case where an officer acting under similar circumstances as Officer White was held to have violated the Fourth Amendment,” the Court concluded.
Clearly established federal law does not prohibit a reasonable officer who arrives late at an ongoing police scene from assuming that proper police procedures, such as identification, have already been followed, the Court said.