The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day 2020 precipitated calls for reforms in law enforcement practices across the nation, including here in Minnesota. While a few minor measures were adopted, major legislation stalled at both federal and state levels, mainly due to Republican opposition.
One of the changes called for by reformers was for the dilution, if not demolition, of the legal doctrine known as “qualified immunity,” as applied to police.
Under that tenet, police may avoid liability for violation of constitutional rights if they establish that the challenged actions were objectively reasonable. Only when the officer knew he was violating “clearly established constitutional rights” can he be sued in civil court.
To scale this formidable barrier, claimants in civil lawsuits must show that the offensive behavior was so far out of bounds that any “reasonable” individual would know that it was violative of law. Given the hazy nature of many laws — especially constitutional matters in which the judges themselves often disagree — it can often be difficult to satisfy this high standard.
A series of rulings over the past few months by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals — the federal appellate tribunal that oversees Minnesota and six surrounding states — has reinforced the difficulty posed by qualified immunity.
In a variety of contexts, that court — two of the 11 active justices are from Minnesota, both conservatives — invoked that doctrine to bar civil lawsuits against law enforcement personnel or the government bodies for which they work. Although none arose in Minnesota, three of the cases had striking parallels to police-related incidents here.
The cases included a driving offense; police struggling with the arrest of a suspect; and a prisoner-police scuffle that ended in the death of the inmate. All of the cases were dismissed on “qualified immunity” grounds.
A Black driver was stopped due to erratic driving and parking in a no-parking area in a case that had the appearance of a classic “driving while Black” scenario. After the driver was exonerated, he sued for civil rights violations, including a long delay between the time he was stopped and the time he was released from custody.
The court of appeals upheld dismissal of the lawsuit on grounds that the officers had “reasonable suspicion to stop him,” due to his erratic driving, which then justified the long custodial hold while the car was searched. The search yielded an open alcohol container.
It’s the type of case that unfortunately leads to fatalities, as experienced here in the Twin Cities on several occasions, as in the Floyd case. Philando Castile in Ramsey County and the more recent Daunte Wright case in Brooklyn Center both arose out of traffic stops that ended in the deaths of the drivers. Fortunately, the case entitled Saunders v. Thies in Des Moines, Iowa, did not end that way. But it concluded with the driver lacking any way to get justice for the wrongful stop of his vehicle and extended custodial hold, and that’s because of qualified immunity.
A more unusual case in St. Louis concerned the improper arrest and incarceration of a pair of white men who were deemed suspects after a Black driver was shot by a passing vehicle. Hartman v. Bowles arose after a witness identified the shooter as a Black man. Nevertheless, two white brothers were arrested and charged with the offense. They were ultimately cleared of charges.
After exoneration, they sued the police officers for wrongful arrest. But their civil lawsuit was dismissed on grounds that the officer who made out the arrest warrant was not aware that the suspect had been identified as a Black man and, therefore, the arrest was not undertaken with “intentional reckless conduct.”
A dissenting judge, however, felt that the two white brothers should be allowed to proceed with the suit because they had been incarcerated or were on house arrest for a long period of time for a crime they did not commit.
That case has certain parallels with one in Minnesota several years ago in which a Black man was apprehended by police after a robbery occurred in Golden Valley; the fleeing culprit was described as a white man. The Black man, who was wrongfully detained, later sued and in 2008 obtained a $ 1.1 million victory, including his attorney’s fees, from a U.S. district court jury and judge in St. Paul. The ruling was upheld on appeal by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in a case entitled Hixon v. City of Golden Valley.
The third of the recent cases also resonates loudly in Minnesota. Entitled Lombardo v. City of St. Louis, it involved a white man in confinement who got in a scuffle with a law enforcement personnel, two of whom restrained him on the ground with their knees in his back for approximately 15 minutes. Reminiscent of the Floyd court case, the prisoner died as a result of the incident, leading to a wrongful death lawsuit.
But unlike the $27 million settlement in the George Floyd case, the civil lawsuit brought by the decedent‘s family members was unsuccessful. The decision by a lower court in St. Louis dismissed the lawsuit on grounds that the officers acted reasonably in trying to restrain the prisoner during the incident and were legally protected from suit under the qualified immunity principle.
As these cases demonstrate, the calls for police reform have a long way to go, especially when dealing with the doctrine of qualified immunity. The tenet continues to constitute an overwhelming obstacle to pursuing claims against offending law enforcement personnel.
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