Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Supremes grant police officer qualified immunity in shooting case

Qualified immunity protects governmental employees when someone sues them for civil rights violations. Johnny Citizen does not enjoy this immunity. But police officers do. The Supreme Court routinely takes up these cases. Lately, the Court has been ruling in favor of the police in excessive force cases.

The case is White v. Pauly, decided by the Supreme Court on January 9. Under the qualified immunity test, we ask two questions: (1) did the police officer violate the plaintiff's rights; and (2) were those rights clearly-established at the time of the violation. This standard allows the defendant to win unless a court somewhere has found that a case with similar facts violated the Constitution. Whether a case was directly on point is in the eye of the beholder. In this case, the Supreme Court beholds that the defendant police officer did not violate any clearly-established rights when he showed up late to a dispute and shot and killed an armed occupant in a house without giving a warning.

After two people reported Pauly's crazy driving, they followed him as he drove away. He then drove to his house, which he shared with his brother. Officer Truesdale, meanwhile, responded to the 911 call and determined with two other officers there was no probable cause to arrest Pauly. These officers then went to Pauley's house to ask him questions. When Pauly and his brother realized the police were outside, they armed themselves, unaware it was the police outside. One of the Pauly brothers told the police they had guns. Meanwhile, Officer White came upon the scene and arrived when he heard the brother shout out they had guns. Daniel Pauly fired his gun while screaming loudly. Samuel Pauly opened the window and pointed his gun at Officer White. One officer shot at Samuel but missed. A few seconds later, White shot and killed Samuel.

While the Court of Appeals said a reasonable police officer would know that their conduct would cause Samuel to defend his home and that White should have known a warning was necessary before pulling the trigger. The Supreme Court disagrees and rules in White's favor. There is no precedent quite like this one, the Court says, which means the law was not clearly-established. This case is unique because of White's late arrival on the scene during an ongoing police action. "No settled Fourth Amendment principle requires that officer to second-guess the earlier steps already taken by his or his fellow officers in instances like the one White confronted here."

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