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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