Supreme Court Action: Qualified Immunity

Two of the cases the Supreme Court decided yesterday involve whether law enforcement officers are entitled to qualified immunity when sued over the alleged violation of a constitutional right.  The first of these cases is Plumhoff v. Rickard (12-1117).  Rickard is the minor daughter of Donald Rickard.  He led police on a high speed chase just outside of Memphis.  The West Memphis Police ended the chase by firing 15 bullets into Rickard’s car causing it to crash.  Rickard and his passenger, Kelly Allen, both died as a result of a combination of the crash and the gunshots.

Police stopped Rickard’s car because it had one working headlight.  There was an indentation in the windshield indicating the car had hit something.  The Officer who stopped Rickard asked him to step out of the car and produce his driver’s license.  Rather than complying, Rickard floored his gas pedal and took off.  His car reached speeds on 100 miles or more on I-40 heading to Memphis.  Multiple police cruisers joined the chase.  Rickard exited the expressway, hit a police car and spun into a parking lot.  He continued to accelerate even though his bumper was flush against a police car.  Police fired three shots into the car.  As Rickard sped away, police fired 12 more shots into the car causing it to crash.  More details of the chase are in the Court’s opinion and in the Sixth Circuit’s opinion.

Rickard’s minor daughter filed suit against the officers and others under state law and 42 U.S.C. §1983 alleging the officers violated Rickard’s Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights by using excessive force in the encounter.  The District Court denied summary judgment based on a claim of qualified immunity.  The Court held the officers violated clearly established law at the time of the encounter.  The Sixth Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity and that they did not violate the Fourth Amendment when they fired a total of 15 shots at Rickard.  The Court initially dealt with the issue of whether there was appellate jurisdiction.  Denial of a summary judgment motion is not normally appealable.  The Court stated that rule doesn’t apply when the denial was based on a claim of qualified immunity.

The Court stated that excessive force claims need to be analyzed under the totality of the circumstances.  Rickard’s actions posed a grave public safety risk given his attempts to flee the police.  The number of shots fired was reasonable in ending the threat to public safety.  The presence of a passenger does not change this.  The Officers would still be entitled to qualified immunity even if they violated the Fourth Amendment as there was no precedent that showed a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment at the time of the incident.

Justice Alito delivered the opinion of the Court and was joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Sotomayor, and Kagan.  Justice Ginsburg joined the judgment and Parts I, II. And III-C, and in which Justice Breyer joined except as to Part III-B-2.

The second qualified immunity case is Wood v. Moss (13-115).  The case concerns First Amendment rights of protesters.  George W. Bush was campaigning for a second term in Jacksonville, Oregon.  Police allowed supporters and protesters to demonstrate along the motorcade route on opposite sides of the street.  The President made an unexpected stop for dinner in the patio area at the Jacksonville Inn.  The protesters were within weapon range of the President and were removed to an area two blocks away.  Supporters were not in weapon range and were permitted to stay.  None of the other diners at the Inn were required to leave, stay clear of the patio, or go through a security screening.  The President’s motorcade continued after dining and passed his supporters.  The protesters, however, were beyond his sight having been moved two blocks away.   They sued the Secret Service agents in charge of the operation for violating their First Amendment rights through viewpoint discrimination.

The District Court denied the agents’ motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim and on qualified immunity grounds.  The Ninth Circuit reversed but granted leave to amend the complaint.  Plaintiffs added allegations that the Secret Service has an unwritten policy of suppressing disfavored views at presidential appearances.  The agents again moved to dismiss and was denied.  The Ninth Circuit affirmed, holding that viewpoint discrimination could be inferred from the different treatment of the groups.  As such, the agents were not entitled to qualified immunity.

The Supreme Court reversed.  It stated that the Government may not suppress speech based on content in public places.  At the same time, people may not express their views whenever, however, and wherever they please.  The analysis in this case is whether the agents knew their actions contravened clearly established law.  The Court cited precedent recognizing the importance of protecting the President.  There was no decision that obligated the Secret Service to provide equivalent access to the President under the First Amendment.

The protesters argued that the agents could have moved the Bush supporters as well.  The Court said there was no security reason to do so.  They also argued that the agents’ actions were designed to insulate the President by not screening or removing staff and guests at the Inn.  The Court said that wasn’t necessary as these individuals were already on site when the President arrived.  The agents could keep a watchful eye on such a small group.  Furthermore, there is no proof of an unwritten Secret Service policy insulating the President from disfavored views.  Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. –Mark

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