Iowa Supreme Court Thinks Things Are Too Tough For Bad Cops, Adopts Qualified Immunity Defense
from the can't-have-cops-worrying-about-violating-rights-when-they're-engaging-in dept
The Iowa Supreme Court has decided to lower standards for law enforcement officers in its state. The ruling [PDF] issued earlier this summer gives state officers the opportunity to dismiss lawsuits against them by asserting qualified immunity. Prior to this decision, there was no qualified immunity defense state actors could raise in court. They were actually forced to actually defend themselves in court, making it easier for plaintiffs’ claims to survive an early motion to dismiss and bringing them closer to justice. (via Bleeding Heartland)
The case — Baldwin v. City of Estherville — involves an arrest for a crime that didn’t exist. It involves driving an ATV through a city-owned ditch, something that’s illegal under state law but not under the City of Estherville’s laws. An arrest for something that wasn’t actually illegal was followed by this lawsuit. It’s a weird origin for a Fourth Amendment lawsuit, but the outcome makes holding officers accountable for their misdeeds much more difficult with the court’s addition of qualified immunity to local government’s litigation toolbox.
A lot of discussion of other states and their local immunity defenses — as well as whether or not Constitutional cases are torts rather than strict liability issues — leads the court to the following conclusion:
Accordingly, with respect to a damage claim under article I, sections 1 and 8, a government official whose conduct is being challenged will not be subject to damages liability if she or he pleads and proves as an affirmative defense that she or he exercised all due care to conform to the requirements of the law.
This brings the state in line with the federal standard. In other words, it lowers the state standards. Officers now only need to assert they were engaged in official police business (I’m very heavily paraphrasing here) when violating rights to sidestep being held personally liable for the rights violation.
This is unfortunate. Qualified immunity has created a system where officers routinely engage in rights violations secure in the knowledge that only the most egregious violations will be punished by courts. This standard varies from district to district and even obvious Constitutional violations can be overlooked if there’s not a precedential case almost exactly on point for the court to look to when making its decision. Every so often a bright line will be drawn by courts, but that only applies to future cases where officers violated rights while engaged in [police activity X] during [exact time of day] involving exactly the same sort of police activity/rights violation as the “bright line” case. It’s almost an insurmountable bar for plaintiffs to hurdle, which has resulted in a steady stream of unpunished rights violations.
The dissenting opinion [starting on p. 40] runs almost as long as the prevailing opinion. From the outset, Justice Brent R. Appel makes it clear qualified immunity is nothing more than a reward system for bad cops. The “standard” courts claim to hold government officials too is so low as to be tragically hilarious.
I begin by emphasizing that the policy-oriented federal doctrine of statutory qualified immunity does not provide a model for determining whether individuals are entitled to qualified immunity for Iowa constitutional torts. The federal doctrine of statutory qualified immunity progressively dilutes legal norms, embraces numerous false assumptions, fails to recognize the important role of juries in restraining government, and is inconsistent with important tenets of Iowa law.
Appel goes on to state that adopting this federal standard will make Iowa — and its court system — much worse, and much less likely to provide an avenue of recourse when rights have been violated.
We should not voluntarily drape our constitutional law with the heavy chains of indefensible doctrine. We should aim to eliminate fictions in our law and be honest and forthright on the important question of what happens when officers of the law commit constitutional wrongs that inflict serious reputational, emotional, and financial harms on our citizens.
And of all the places to give the government more ways to dodge accountability, Appel argues the Fourth Amendment (and its Iowa Constitution equivalent) is the worst place to do it. He goes Godwin to make his point.
The importance of effective enforcement of search and seizure restrictions on government was not lost on the generation of lawyers and judges who witnessed the collapse of the rule of law in central Europe in the 1930s. As Chief Nuremburg Prosecutor Justice Robert Jackson so eloquently opined after his return from his assignment in immediate postwar Germany,
“search and seizure rights are not mere second-class rights but belong in the catalog of indispensable freedoms. Among deprivations of rights, none is so effective in cowing a population, crushing the spirit of the individual and putting terror in every heart. Uncontrolled search and seizure is one of the first and most effective weapons in the arsenal of every arbitrary government.”
Qualified immunity is nothing more than an escape hatch for bad government behavior.
In short, when citizens suffer potentially grievous harms from unconstitutional conduct in violation of article I, section 1 or article I, section 8, we should require the officials who engaged in the unconstitutional conduct to bear the burden of the loss. We should not allow the officials who engage in unconstitutional conduct to respond to the prayer of the harmed citizen with, “Aw, tough luck. Tut tut. Bye bye.”
Here are the facts about qualified immunity. It’s not needed and its absence won’t result in thousands of law enforcement officers suddenly having to pay out of their own pockets for Constitutional violations.
A recent study by Professor Joanna Schwartz confirms what one might suspect, namely, that at least with respect to police officers, local governments almost always indemnify for settlements and judgments arising out of misconduct lawsuits. See Joanna C. Schwartz, Police Indemnification, 89 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 885, 912 (2014). Specifically, the Schwartz study found that in the forty-four largest jurisdictions studied, police officers paid .02% of the over $730 million paid for misconduct suits between 2006 and 2011. In the thirty-seven smaller police departments included in the study, Schwartz found there were no officer contributions towards settlements and judgments during that time. In short, according to Schwartz, in many jurisdictions “officers are more likely to be struck by lightning than they are to contribute to a settlement or judgment in a police misconduct suit.” Id. at 914. The fact that officers are almost always indemnified undercuts one of the primary arguments in favor of the immunity doctrine—that without it, officers will be deterred from engaging in appropriate activities for fear of the financial consequences of a wrong decision.
Here’s how Appel sums up his dissent:
Rather than follow the state’s motto, “Our Liberties We Prize and Our Rights We Will Maintain,” the majority follows an approach that suggests “Our Liberties Are Transient and Our Rights Are Expendable.”
The majority’s finding that the speculative overdeterrence of actions of officials is weighty while the risk of underdeterrence of unconstitutional conduct infringing on individual rights is not mentioned at all, suggests a results-oriented jurisprudence that favors government officials who inflict unconstitutional harms over citizens who endure them.
That’s exactly how it works at the federal level and in states that have adopted this defense against liability. QI is a “Get Out of Litigation FREE!” card for government employees, and it has encouraged Constitutional violations far more than it has deterred routine police work.