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07

By Lisa Soronen

Qualified immunity cases are never pretty because they always involve an allegation that a government official violated the law (and usually not just any law but the Constitution). Add the use of deadly force in a high speed chase and things go from bad to worse. Nevertheless, the State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) routinely files amicus curiae briefs in the U.S. Supreme Court cases involving qualified immunity. Money spent on these cases is money that cannot be spent on government programs and services.   

A quick qualified immunity refresher: State and local government officials can be sued for money damages in their individual capacity if they violate a person’s constitutional rights. Qualified immunity protects government officials from such lawsuits where the law they violated isn’t “clearly established.” Qualified immunity is intended to protect “all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.”

The SLLC filed an amicus brief in Plumhoff v. Rickard, which NCSL joined, where the Supreme Court will decide whether police officers are entitled to qualified immunity for the use of deadly force in a high speed chase. 

Police officers shot and killed Donald Rickard and his passenger after Rickard led police on a high-speed chase. Their families sought money damages claiming the officers violated the Fourth Amendment by using excessive force. The officers argued they should be granted qualified immunity because their use of force wasn’t prohibited by clearly established law. The court will decide whether the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals properly denied qualified immunity by distinguishing this case, which arose in 2004, with a later Supreme Court decision from 2007. The court also will decide whether qualified immunity should be denied based on the facts of this case. Rickard wove through traffic on an interstate connecting two states, collided with police vehicles twice, and used his vehicle to escape after being surrounded by police officers, nearly hitting at least one officer.

The SLLC’s brief argues that the Supreme Court should rule as follows: Officers retain qualified immunity from Fourth Amendment force claims so long as it is arguable, on the historical facts most favorable to the plaintiff, that the force was reasonable. In evaluating immunity, a court must adopt the inferences that a reasonable officer could arguably draw from the facts, regardless of whether those inferences are factual or legal. It is a legal question whether—based on the historical facts, the inferences an officer could arguably draw from them, and clearly established law—only a plainly incompetent officer could conclude that force was reasonable.

Oral argument has been scheduled for March 4. The Supreme Court will issue an opinion in this case by June 30.

Lisa Soronen is executive director of the State and Local Legal Center. She writes frequently on Supreme Court cases for the NCSL Blog.

 

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.

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