Michael J. Hooi, Qualified Immunity: When is a Loss Ultimately a Win?

60 Fla. L. Rev. 979 (2008) | | | |

TEXT :: Scott v. Harris, 127 S. Ct. 1769 (2007)

A Georgia sheriff’s deputy clocked Victor Harris driving seventy-three miles per hour in a fifty-five mile per hour zone. After Harris ignored the deputy’s signal to pull over for speeding, the deputy began a high-speed chase and radioed dispatch for backup. Deputy Timothy Scott heard the broadcast and became Harris’s lead pursuer. Scott ended the chase by striking his cruiser’s push bumper against the back of Harris’s car, causing Harris’s car to fall down an embankment and crash, rendering Harris a quadriplegic.

Harris filed suit for monetary damages pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging, among other things, that Scott violated the Fourth Amendment by using excessive force during the chase. Scott entered into the record a video recording of the car chase to support his claim that Harris’s reckless driving posed a substantial threat of imminent physical harm to others. Scott moved for summary judgment based on qualified immunity, which the district court denied. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed on interlocutory appeal, and Scott petitioned for a writ of certiorari, which the Supreme Court granted. The Court reviewed the video recording de novo and found that the recording “utterly discredited” Harris’s version of the facts adopted by both the district and circuit courts. The Supreme Court accordingly reversed the Eleventh Circuit and HELD that Scott acted reasonably when he ended the car chase, that he did not violate the Fourth Amendment, and that he was entitled to qualified immunity.

When a person alleges that a police officer violated that person’s rights and sues for monetary damages, the officer may assert immunity as an affirmative defense. The officer may be entitled to absolute immunity or qualified immunity, depending on the governmental function he performed when the alleged violation occurred. Usually, a police officer is entitled to absolute immunity only when he is testifying in court as a witness. Since absolute immunity defenses tend to apply categorically, they generally can be resolved on motions to dismiss.

However, most governmental functions performed by police officers afford them only qualified immunity. The qualified immunity doctrine tries to balance the public policy that wrongfully injured plaintiffs should be compensated and the public policy that officers should not be constantly subject to liability for their “judgment calls made in a legally uncertain environment.” Qualified immunity defenses, accordingly, tend to be more fact- sensitive than absolute immunity defenses.

The Supreme Court established the groundwork for the current standard for qualified immunity in Harlow v. Fitzgerald. The respondent filed suit after losing his job at the Air Force, alleging that the petitioners violated his federal legal rights by conspiring to discharge him for exposing the Air Force’s cost overruns. Before Harlow, the respondent could have recovered monetary damages if he could prove that the petitioners acted with malice. The Harlow Court observed, however, that plaintiffs could too easily allege malice and disrupt governmental operations, hoping to find evidence during discovery to support their allegations. The Court responded by establishing a solely objective standard to determine whether officers are entitled to qualified immunity. Under Harlow, officers “generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”

The Harlow Court did not explain what it means for the law to be “clearly established.” However, through further development of the qualified immunity doctrine, the Supreme Court has stated that a right can be clearly established even if there is no prior case law on point. But, unless the officer obviously violates a right, the plaintiff often will have to show that the right was clearly established in light of precedent.

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