Will the Supreme Court Revisit the Breadth of Qualified Immunity Granted to Law Enforcement Officers in Civil Rights Cases?

As of last week, the Supreme Court was evaluating petitions for certiorari in 13 cases dealing with qualified immunity. In at least 10 of those cases, plaintiffs alleging civil rights violations by law enforcement officers had been denied relief, because the officers were granted qualified immunity in lower court decisions. In recent years, the doctrine of immunity has greatly limited accountability for law enforcement officers (and even more so for prosecutors) even in some cases where those officers committed indisputable violations of an individual’s constitutional rights.

In 2009, in Pearson v. Callahan, the Supreme Court held that a court is not required to determine whether the violation of a constitutional right has occurred, but rather can reject a plaintiff’s civil rights claim solely because the conduct has not already been deemed unconstitutional under “clearly established law.” According to Pearson, a court is permitted to grant an officer immunity based on trivial factual distinctions with the previous precedent. As a result, over the last 10 years, even some civil rights claims based on truly egregious conduct by law enforcement officers have been routinely rejected by the courts.

Recently, in 2017, Justice Sotomayor acknowledged her awareness of the issues associated with this expansion of qualified immunity in her dissent in Salazar-Limon v. Houston.

In dissent, Justice Sotomayor commented that there has been a “disturbing trend” of favoring the police in civil rights cases, explaining that the Supreme Court has “rarely intervene[d] where courts wrongly afford officers the benefit of qualified immunity.“ Statistics indeed show that over the last 15 years, the Supreme Court has granted certiorari on 12 appeals from denials of qualified immunity by officers but only 3 appeals by plaintiffs. With 10 of the original 13 qualified immunity cert petitions still pending, it remains to be seen whether the Court will take on such a case for the upcoming term and reverse the current trend which has made it more difficult for some civil rights plaintiffs to recover damages.

Nathans & Biddle LLP is a highly respected advocate for individuals and businesses involved in a broad spectrum of civil disputes. With offices in Annapolis, Baltimore and Greenbelt, we represent clients across Maryland and the Washington, D.C., region.

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