White v. Pauly: Another Supreme Court Signal on Excessive Force and Qualified Immunity
In White v. Pauly, 137 S. Ct. 548 (2017)(per curiam), the Supreme Court once more strongly sent a message that police officers are to be given maximum deference when sued for damages under section 1983 and the Fourth Amendment for using excessive force.
In 2015, the Supreme Court handed down Mullinex v. Luna, 136 S. Ct. 305 (2015), which ruled on qualified immunity grounds in favor of a police officer who allegedly used deadly force in violation of the Fourth Amendment in a high-speed police chase situation. See my post of Feb. 11, 2016.
An earlier decision, Plumhoff v. Rickard, 134 S. Ct. 2012 (2014), had ruled on the Fourth Amendment merits in favor of pursuing police officers who shot the driver and a passenger. See my post of May 28, 2014.
Both Plumhoff and Mullinex derive from the Court’s decision in Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372 (2007), which ruled that a police officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment when he attempted to stop a fleeing driver from continuing his “public-endangering flight” by ramming the driver’s car from behind even though the officer’s actions created the risk of serious injury or death to the driver. According to the Court in Scott, a video of the chase made clear that the officer’s ramming of the car was objectively reasonable.
White v. Pauly: A Police Officer Receives Qualified Immunity for Use of Deadly Force
In White v. Pauly, yet another excessive force case (this one not involving a high-speed chase), the Supreme Court continued to signal lower federal courts and litigants that the clearly settled law inquiry must be made at a relatively fact specific level. In the Court’s words: “This case addresses the situation of an officer who—having arrived late at an ongoing police action and having witnessed shots being fired by one of several individuals in a house surrounded by other officers—shoots and kills an armed occupant of the house without first giving a warning.” The Court ruled that the officer was protected by qualified immunity.
The plaintiff in White, representing the estate of his deceased brother, alleged that three police officers violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against the use of excessive force. The plaintiff was involved in a road-rage incident with two women who called 911 to report him as “drunk” and “swerving all crazy.” After a brief, nonviolent encounter with the women, the plaintiff drove off to a secluded house where he lived with his brother. Thereafter, two police officers—not including Officer White at the time–drove to the house (it was 11 pm) and were moving around outside. The plaintiff and his brother became aware of persons outside and yelled “Who are you?” and “What do you want?” The plaintiff maintained that he and his brother never heard the two officers identify themselves as police—only that the officers said they were armed and coming in. The brothers then armed themselves and began shooting. At that point Officer White, who had been radioed by the two officers, was walking toward the house when he heard the shots apparently directed at the two officers. Plaintiff’s brother then opened a front window and pointed a handgun in Officer White’s direction. One of the other two officers shot at the brother but missed him, followed immediately by White’s shooting and killing the plaintiff’s brother.
The district court denied all three defendants’ motions for summary judgment, and a divided panel of the Tenth Circuit affirmed. Pauly v. White, 814 F.3d 1060 (10th Cir. 2016). As to the two officers, the Tenth Circuit determined that taking the evidence most favorably to the plaintiff, reasonable officers should have understood that their conduct would cause the brothers to defend their home and might result in the use of deadly force against the deceased brother. As to Officer White, the Tenth Circuit ruled that the rule “that a reasonable officer in White’s position would believe that a warning was required despite the threat of serious harm” was clearly established at the time by statements from the Supreme Court’s case law. Judge Moritz dissented, arguing that the majority impermissibly second-guessed officer White’s quick decision to use deadly force.
The Supreme Court then reversed the Tenth Circuit, vacating the judgment against Officer White on the ground that he did not violate clearly established law on the record before the Tenth Circuit. The Court emphasized that it had regularly and repeatedly declared that clearly established law should not be articulated at a high level of generality. In the Court’s view, the Tenth Circuit “failed to identify a case where an officer acting under similar circumstances as Officer White was held to have violated the Fourth Amendment.” Instead the Tenth Circuit improperly relied on general statements from the Supreme Court and circuit court “progeny” that set out excessive force principles “at only a general level.” Furthermore, this case did not present an obvious Fourth Amendment violation: the Tenth Circuit majority did not conclude that the failure to shout a warning was a “run-of-the-mill Fourth Amendment violation.” Finally, the Court expressed no opinion on the question whether the other two officers were protected by qualified immunity. Justice Ginsburg concurred, pointing out her “understanding” that the Court’s opinion did not foreclose denying summary judgment to the two other officers.
The Supreme Court obviously cannot decide all of the excessive force/qualified immunity cases in the circuits. So it does the next best thing by signalling to the federal judiciary and litigants that it demands maximum deference to police involving the use of excessive force, together with providing (to police) a significant margin for error in making the qualified immunity determination. In White, this was accomplished by finding no clearly settled Fourth Amendment law because of the Court’s insistence on finding a similar case.
Notice that the signalling is also directed at those federal circuit judges who disagree with a denial of qualified immunity by their panels. They are encouraged to do the hard work and write dissents that might encourage the losing police officers to seek certiorari in the Supreme Court, as well as catch the eye of some of the Justices.
Finally, White makes clear to section 1983 excessive force plaintiffs that they must do their clearly established law homework (I call it “time-travel” research) in order to have a decent chance of surviving a defense motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity.
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