Supreme Court Asked To Deny Qualified Immunity To County Engineer Who Decided Entrapment Was The Best Use Of Taxpayer Money
from the pettiest-of-tyrants dept
We all know this country is capable of evils normally associated with authoritarian regimes — things like torture, illegal spying, the occasional exhortation to commit suicide, etc. But we expect the country we love to only violate our sense of justice for big things: War on Terror, War on Drugs, War on… Equal Rights, I guess.
But government agencies and employees are capable of extremely petty evils — the sort far more often associated with authoritarian regimes. Everyone just kind of accepts violent crushing of dissent, state-sponsored terrorism, and ethnic cleansing as being the things bad governments do. But we expect even the worst governments to do bad things in big ways, rather than do shitty things to individuals who don’t serve their larger schemes just because.
But that’s what we’re dealing with here. Even worse, this petty abuse of law-abiding citizens has already been given a free pass by an appeals court. Here’s what the Eighth Circuit Appeals Court ok’ed last November, as recounted by Stephen Montemayor for the Minnesota Star Tribune.
The state contracted Central Specialties in 2016 for road work on a state highway. According to the company’s attorneys, the agreement “roused new disagreements in an already contentious relationship between CSI (Central Specialties) and Large, centering on the number of roads that would be designed as haul roads and the company’s ability to use non-haul roads as a return route for its empty trucks.”
The company told Large one day in July 2017 that it planned to use a non-haul road to bring home empty semitrucks. The next morning, he persuaded Mahnomen County’s board of commissioners to change the highway’s weight restriction so that even the empty trucks would violate the weight limit. Central Specialties’ attorneys argue that Large violated the constitutional rights of its employees when he pulled over two trucks and detained them for more than three hours over the new weight limit established earlier that day. The local Sheriff’s Office and tribal police refused to intervene and a State Patrol citation for the trucks was dismissed a day later.
The “Large” mentioned above is Mahnomen County Engineer Jonathan Large. He disagreed with the capability of the roads to carry even the load of empty trucks. And, despite only having authority over a small stretch of the affected roads, Large changed the road limit roughly one hour before CSI’s trucks hit the road. Road signs were deployed. Whether or not they were placed before CSI’s empty trucks began rolling is still up for debate. And the company was never informed of the weight limit change by Large. Instead, Large contacted a Minnesota Dept. of Transportation project manager, who supposedly sent out an email roughly an hour after they had been informed of the change by Large.
Having set up CSI to fail, Large parked his county vehicle across the road, preventing CSI trucks from moving forward. He then called the local sheriff’s office. The local sheriff informed Large the department did not have officers to spare to help the county engineer pretend to be a cop. Large then called tribal police from White Earth. They arrived at the scene but decided they did not have jurisdiction. Finally, Large called the Minnesota state police — the only agency willing to oblige the engineer in his unilateral, unsupported-by-law, quasi-traffic stop. Troopers cited the first driver of an empty truck for violating the brand new, established-earlier-that-day weight limit. The troopers did not cite any other CSI drivers. In total, the drivers were detained for more than three hours by Large’s largely unilateral law enforcement effort.
The Eighth Circuit said this was fine [PDF]. Well, maybe it wasn’t fine, but (quite understandably) it could find no analogous precedent that would have put Mr. Large on notice that changing the law at short notice before pretending he was some sort of cop would result in clearly established rights violations. The court reasoned (I use that term carelessly) that Large only “stopped” the truck from proceeding. He did not prevent them from exiting the area by turning around and finding another route. But when a county car blocks a road, most drivers for contractors currently in the employ of the government would logically assume they were not free to leave… not if they didn’t want to be subjected to something worse than what they were already experiencing.
The Institute of Justice wants the Supreme Court to re-examine this issue. Should county employees be granted qualified immunity for behaving like law enforcement officers (even if they had no power to do so)? And should they be allowed to escape a lawsuit that was the direct result of a county employee securing a last-minute law change to use against drivers who had no way of knowing the roads they had previously been given permission access to use were now closed to them?
The situation the Institute of Justice wants the Supreme Court to take another look at is akin to a person pouring accelerant, gathering flammable materials, laying matches carelessly close to both, and then exiting the scene before the fire starts. That the fire didn’t start until other people arrived on the scene doesn’t mean the person who set the whole thing up is blameless. That other professionals took over and ensured the property was properly arsoned doesn’t absolve the instigator. That everyone involved was a government employee doesn’t make any of this more acceptable.
As the IJ’s report on the ongoing case notes, it has now been accompanied by a couple of law professors who — like the Institute for Justice itself — would prefer not to see qualified immunity expanded to cover something that really looks like vindictive entrapment performed by a county engineer who used his county-branded car to act like a cop until he could convince real cops to finish his dirty work for him.
But this is being tossed into the current Supreme Court, which appears to be very selective about what cases it will address. Lately, it seems far more interested in discussing opportunities to limit rights enjoyed by citizens while expanding the government’s ability (at both federal and local levels) to control what citizens can or can’t do. Very little of its recent work seems willing to act as a check on government power. And this case, unfortunately, is right in that wheelhouse, which means it’s far more likely to deny cert than examine a case that might result in qualified immunity being reined back in.