Supreme Court Rolls Back Another Horrible Qualified Immunity Decision By The Fifth Circuit

from the let's-start-this-trending! dept

The Supreme Court has done a lot over the years to shield law enforcement officers from accountability. It has redefined the contours of the qualified immunity defense to make it all but impossible for plaintiffs to succeed. Appeals Courts have been hamstrung by Supreme Court precedent, forced to pretty much ignore the egregious rights violations in front of them in favor of dusting off old decisions to see if any officer violated someone’s rights in exactly this way prior to this case.

Since law enforcement officers are apparently unable to exercise judgment on their own, the courts often grant forgiveness to these poor single-cell organisms who couldn’t have possibly known that, say, locking a prisoner in a feces-covered cell for days violated the prisoner’s rights. And that’s the conclusion the Fifth Circuit Appeals Court reached December 2019 in Taylor v. Riojas.

The Fifth Circuit is the worst circuit to bring a federal civil rights violation case. And it’s still as awful as ever, even with Judge Don Willett — who published a scathing dissent in another qualified immunity case — sitting on the bench.

The only good news is that the Supreme Court may be slowly realizing its expansion of the qualified immunity defense is encouraging courts to give law enforcement officers a pass even when it’s painfully clear rights have been violated. Almost a year after the Fifth Circuit ruled in favor of prison guards, the Supreme Court reversed this decision. There may have been no case exactly on point, but for the Supreme Court that’s not a necessity when there’s a clear rights violation.

[N]o 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.

This ruling was part of the Supreme Court’s docket dispensation. No full opinion was issued. But it sent a message to the Fifth Circuit. And that message has been reinforced with another remand to the Fifth Circuit — again for granting qualified immunity when it shouldn’t have. (h/t Athul Acharya)

McCOY, PRINCE V. ALAMU, TAJUDEEN

The petition for a writ of certiorari is granted. The judgment is vacated, and the case is remanded to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit for further consideration in light of Taylor v. Riojas, 592 U. S. ___ (2020) (per curiam).

The Fifth Circuit handled Prince v. Alamu back in February of last year. Badly. It somehow managed to find that deliberately pepper spraying a prisoner in the eyes in retaliation for the actions of another prisoner was subject to qualified immunity.

Above, we held that the spraying crossed that line. But it was not beyond debate that it did, so the law wasn’t clearly established. This was an isolated, single use of pepper spray.

And that was enough to give the guard a free pass. As the dissenting opinion noted, the only reason qualified immunity wasn’t stripped was because the guard didn’t use his fist, a baton, or a Taser. That this involved pepper spray was the only thing separating it from being “clearly established.”

The Supreme Court is to blame here. It has repeatedly rejected QI cases, telling lower courts they’re supposed to read “clearly established” precedent narrowly, rather than find that similar cases (ones not exactly on point) gave government employees enough warning this new and novel violation of rights would be a violation of rights. With this reversal, the Supreme Court is reversing its own instructions. Hopefully this will continue. With enough reversals, qualified immunity will no longer be the accountability copout it has become.

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Comments on “Supreme Court Rolls Back Another Horrible Qualified Immunity Decision By The Fifth Circuit”

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21 Comments
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Upstream (profile) says:

We have to take what little improve we can get, at least for now

its expansion of the qualified immunity defense is encouraging courts to give law enforcement officers a pass even when it’s painfully clear rights have been violated.

Gee, who could have possibly seen that coming? Surely not the nine most powerful and qualified jurists in the country!

Or did they? This is another situation where I do not think it is even remotely appropriate to give them the benefit of the "Hanlon’s Razor" doubt. I think they knew exactly where they wanted this to go over the last 40+ years, and they are only now backtracking (even if just a little bit) because the widespread media coverage of so many of these outrageous abuses has finally started to open the sleepy eyes of public opinion.

Upstream (profile) says:

Re: Re: We have to take what little improve we can get, at least

While it is true that the justices (and I think we necessarily use that term loosely here) have changed since QI was first established, the evolving SCOTUS lineup has, until just recently, expanded and strengthened QI at every opportunity. What was originally presented as a doctrine to keep cops from worrying about lawsuits for "legal performance of their duties" (key word being "legal"), has been effectively transformed by the various SCOTUS lineups into "unqualified impunity."

Also, with few exceptions, the SCOTUS has become increasingly statist since the early 80’s, not that it wasn’t already quite statist back then.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:

Two cases that should have taken a single trial each, max

Qualified immunity is a legal abomination that never should have been created and needs to die as soon as possible, and one need look no further than the fact that no less than the US Supreme Court had to chime in on previous rulings by lower courts regarding how keeping a prisoner in a shit filled cell and macing someone in the eyes simply because a guard wanted to to point out that no, neither of those are acceptable and the courts below need to try again.

If those tasked with enforcing the law and/or managing prisoners are really so stupid that they need to be explicitly told what is and is not acceptable behavior then the proper response it to fire them and bar them from any job that requires thinking, not give them legal protections above and beyond what the general public gets to shield them from any consequences for their actions.

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Whoever says:

Re: Two cases that should have taken a single trial each, max

Qualified Immunity ought to be an abomination to any jurist who claims to be an "originalist", since it is a doctrine that is 100% made up by the judicial branch.

The fact that the "originalist" supreme court judges go along with QI shows that their claim to try to understand and apply the original meaning of the constitution and laws is pure bunkum.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Two cases that should have taken a single trial each, max

Who could have foreseen the consequences of holding the most powerful people to lower standards of laws than the average citizen?

Sarcasm aside, of course QI is a legal abomination. But somehow, the people at the top decided that a strong and accountable police was a good idea. (It probably was, to them. It’s not like police was going to come after them.) It took them that long to realize how terrible an idea it was.

I would have been surprised to see them open their eyes to the truth of the situation if it hadn’t taken years of protesting, sometimes rioting, and a few extremely outrageous cases to get to this point.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Double standards are bullshit

Corruption and cowardice. Whether because judges and legislators are really big on the idea that Authority Is Never Wrong or they’re too cowardly to call out abuses and rights violations because they don’t have the guts to stand up to people from the first group the default treatment for cops and others in similar positions is to give them silk-glove treatment, operating under the idea that no-one is dumber than a cop and as such it would be unreasonable to expect them to have any sort of intelligence or ability to understand anything not explicitly and in minute detail explained to them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Double standards are bullshit

Well, the other side of the coin is that QI was originally created so that LEOs in the line of duty wouldn’t have to stop and weigh their legal options while keeping the peace. Because corruption and cowardice lie on that side of the line too.

So think of QI as being the response to organized crime, along with asset forfeiture.

The problems are obvious with both, and the pendulum may finally be slowing down its swing here.

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Double standards are bullshit

And yet somehow ever other profession out there does just fine without a legal shield against lawsuits like that so QI strikes me as trying to get rid of an anthill with a nuke, replacing a minor problem with a much, much worse one.

If the potential of getting sued is such a huge problem then there are a number of other options available off the top of my head, from ‘insurance’ to cover lawsuits paid for by individual cops, lower though still painful financial penalties levied against individual officers rather than the department as a while(enough to hurt but not enough to bankrupt someone unless they really cross the line, in which case prison would probably be more appropriate), prospective cops realizing that if the threat of a lawsuit is enough to keep them from doing the job it’s probably not a good fit for them…

As for asset forfeiture I’d put that right up alongside QI on the ‘legal abominations’ list. I can see how the idea could make sense(‘You stole this/bought this with stolen money, you don’t get to keep it’) but with the state it’s currently in it’s nothing less than legal armed robbery and should be seen and treated as such by the courts.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Double standards are bullshit

"So think of QI as being the response to organized crime, along with asset forfeiture."

In both cases it would seem to be a "solution" similar to the old question of "Why do we need ‘burden of proof’ anyway? It often favors criminals…".

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Something something they panic b/c some cops might be held responsible for violating some tiny little right that maybe no one but lawyers might have known about… invent QI.
The rotten apples then do what they do with everything that gives them any benefit… see how far it can be pushed. So to uphold the image of a perfectly normal barrel with shiny perfect apples inside they make the unacceptable acceptable.
Then the screws boil a mentally ill inmate to death & the local DA says meh not a crime.

‘MERKIA!!!!!

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