Qualified immunity is one of the largest obstacles facing civil rights attorneys. The doctrine of qualified immunity gives police officers or other state actors immunity from suit in certain situations. To overcome the defense the plaintiff first needs to prove that (1) the defendant violated the plaintiff's constitutional rights; and (2) that the constitutional violation
was "clearly established" at the time of the incident. Sometimes, courts will that a violation of "clearly established law" is obvious from the facts of a case. However, in most cases the "clearly established" requirement can only be met by pointing to prior cases with similar facts.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court issued a decision called White v. Pauley, applying the qualified immunity doctrine to a police shooting case. In White a group of police officers were investigating a suspect for reckless driving and possibly DUI. The officers, who did not have a warrant at the time, surrounded the house. When the plaintiff and his brother asked who was there, a police officer laughed and responded, "Hey (expletive), we got you surrounded. Come out or we're coming in." At this point the plaintiff and his brother informed the strangers outside their house that they had guns. A firefight ensued shortly thereafter.
The dispute before the Supreme Court did not involve these officers, but an officer who arrived late to the scene and only heard the plaintiff and brother shouting that they had guns. The officer took cover behind a stone wall and fired into the Plaintiff's home. The lower court found that the officer was not entitled to qualified immunity, that a reasonable officer in his protected position should have tried to warn the occupants in the home before firing. All eight Justices of the Supreme Court disagreed with the lower court's analysis.
A prior Supreme Court case, Graham v. Connor, stated that "if [a] suspect threatens [an] officer with a weapon, deadly force may be necessary to prevent escape, and if[,] where feasible, a warning has been given." However, the White Court found that the officer was still entitled to qualified immunity, even if he did not give a warning, because the case involved a unique set of facts that had never been litigated before. Specifically, no controlling case had ever addressed the issue of whether an officer who arrived late to a scene could assume that proper protocols for police identification had already been followed. On this rationale, the Court concluded that the law in this scenario was not "clearly established."
The White case may become a powerful tool for defendants in police shooting cases. Virtually every police shooting will involve complications that were not present in prior cases. The Supreme Court seems to be discouraging lawsuits against police officers in all but "run-of-the-mill" cases with its decision.