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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Filed Under: 5th circuit, law enforcement, qualified immunity, supreme court


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  • identicon
    Annonymouse, 25 Feb 2021 @ 5:09am

    Maybe some brave souls can bring the us (in)justice system before the Hague even if the States didn't cotton to that pinko international human rights charter

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 25 Feb 2021 @ 7:26am

      Re:

      " pinko international human rights charter"

      Prosecuting WWII Axis power war criminals is what now?

      Genocide and holocaust is ok with you I guess, so long as it is those people.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Upstream (profile), 25 Feb 2021 @ 5:13am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      R.H. (profile), 26 Feb 2021 @ 12:01pm

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

      Don't forget, the Supreme Court isn't a monolith. None of the justices who established Qualified Immunity are still on the court. Even the Qualified Immunity decision was an 8-1 split with Justice Berger dissenting.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Upstream (profile), 26 Feb 2021 @ 2:26pm

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Feb 2021 @ 5:58am

    The Supreme Court needs to relearn what is was designed for! to support civil rights, the constitution and protect WE THE PEOPLE! not let tyrants get away with there crimes!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 25 Feb 2021 @ 7:30am

      Re:

      I thought their main purpose was to resolve disputes between the lower courts.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 26 Feb 2021 @ 3:27am

      Re:

      "The Supreme Court needs to relearn what is was designed for!"

      To consolidate the power of the wealthy and entrenched against unfortunate lower court decisions which might have favored the unwashed mob as the result of some confused judge thinking the US is a classless society?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Sok Puppette, 25 Feb 2021 @ 6:50am

    Time to mention yet again...

    ... that there's a whole other branch of government that could instantly rewrite all of these rules, refuses to do so, and doesn't seem to be getting a lot of blowback for not doing so...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 25 Feb 2021 @ 8:34am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Whoever, 25 Feb 2021 @ 2:39pm

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 2 Mar 2021 @ 9:59am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 2 Mar 2021 @ 10:00am

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

        (sorry, it should be obvious I meant "strong and unaccountable".)

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Feb 2021 @ 9:45am

    Equal justice under the law .... lol

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Feb 2021 @ 10:34am

    Double standards are bullshit

    I will never understand why I would be charged with a crime for things cops get away with due to QI. How in the hell does that make any sense at all?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 25 Feb 2021 @ 11:30am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 25 Feb 2021 @ 12:42pm

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          That One Guy (profile), 25 Feb 2021 @ 4:51pm

          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.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 26 Feb 2021 @ 3:29am

          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...".

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 25 Feb 2021 @ 1:16pm

    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!!!!!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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