Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Justices rule in favor of victim in mistaken identity police shooting case

Are you a qualified immunity junkie? If you handle Section 1983 cases, you should be. Qualified immunity (as opposed to complete immunity) means that public officials can avoid liability in close cases where the courts give them the benefit of the doubt, i.e., if the case law was not clearly-established at the time. In this case, the Supreme Court reverses summary judgment in a qualified immunity case where the police shot someone in the chest.

The case is Tolan v. Cotton, decided on May 5. As usual in some of these police cases, the facts are tragic. In the middle of the Texas night, two police officers mistakenly thought Tolan was driving a stolen car. When they went to Tolan's home, Tolan's parents came outside to tell the police they got the wrong guy. Sgt. Cotton then shows up. Tolan and his mother testified that Cotton slammed mom against the garage door, causing her to fall to the ground. In contrast, Cotton said the mother "flipped her arm up and told him to get his hands off her." Meanwhile, Tolan was lying on the ground. Tolan testified that when he saw the officer push his mother, he rose to his knees and said, 15 to 20 feet away, "get your fucking hands off my mom." Cotton then shot Tolan three times. One bullet entered Tolan's chest, collapsing his lung and piercing his liver. This case received quite a bit of media attention. Tolan, by the way, is a former minor league baseball player and the son of former Major Leaguer Bobby Tolan.

Reversing the Fifth Circuit, the Supreme Court says the police officer is not entitled to summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds. The Court of Appeals resolved disputed fact issues in finding that the officer did not violate clearly-established law, including whether the area was dimly-lit, whether the mother refused orders to remain quiet and calm, whether Tolan was shouting, and whether Tolan was moving toward Sgt. Cotten or whether he was on his knees at the time. If Tolan's side of the story is true, then Cotton subjected him to excessive force. If Cotton's version is true, then the shooting may have been justified. These disputes cannot be resolved on paper. We need to swear in a jury for this.

The conservative Court majority has come under attack for disfavoring civil rights plaintiffs. For that reason, the following excerpt from the opinion may surprise you. In reversing summary judgment, the Court says:

The witnesses on both sides come to this case with their own perceptions, recollections, and even potential biases.It is in part for that reason that genuine disputes are generally resolved by juries in our adversarial system. By weighing the evidence and reaching factual inferences contrary to Tolan’s competent evidence, the court below neglected to adhere to the fundamental principle that at the summary judgment stage, reasonable inferences should be drawn in favor of the nonmoving party.  
Qualified immunity junkies know the basic legal standard in these cases. Or do they? The Supreme Court frames it this way:

In resolving questions of qualified immunity at summary judgment, courts engage in a two-pronged inquiry. The first asks whether the facts, “[t]aken in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury, . . . show the officer’s conduct violated a [federal] right[.]” ... The second prong of the qualified-immunity analysis asks whether the right in question was “clearly established” at the time of the violation. Governmental actors are “shielded from liability for civil damages if their actions did not violate ‘clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.’”
The lower federal courts have added a third prong: whether the defendant's actions were objectively reasonable under the circumstances. As Sonia Sotomayor noted when she was a Second Circuit judge, the Supreme Court has never adopted that element of the qualified immunity test. One of these days the Supreme Court will have to resolve whether qualified immunity should apply when the officer's actions are objectively unreasonable but the law was clearly established. 

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