Qualified Immunity

Amy Coney Barrett Demolishes the Qualified Immunity Claim of a Detective Accused of Framing a Man for Murder

The case is an encouraging sign that the SCOTUS contender is not the sort of judge who bends over backward to shield cops from liability for outrageous misconduct.

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After William Rainsberger was arrested for murdering his 88-year-old mother, he spent two months in jail before he was released on bail. A year later, prosecutors dropped the case, citing a lack of evidence. That decision was not surprising, because Rainsberger's arrest was based on a probable cause affidavit written by an Indianapolis detective who misrepresented crucial facts and omitted exculpatory information.

The detective, Charles Benner, nevertheless argued that Rainsberger could not sue him under 42 USC 1983, a federal statute that allows people to seek damages when government officials violate their constitutional rights. In a 2019 opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit demolished Benner's argument that he was protected by qualified immunity, a court-invented doctrine that limits such claims to cases in which officials are accused of violating "clearly established" law.

That opinion is of special interest to critics of qualified immunity—which in many cases has protected police officers from liability for shocking behavior—because it was written by 7th Circuit Judge Amy Coney Barrett, who is reportedly the leading contender to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court. In addition to supporting legislation that would limit or abolish qualified immunity, its critics hope the Supreme Court will reconsider the doctrine in an appropriate case. While the 7th Circuit's decision in Rainsberger v. Benner does not reveal how Barrett would vote in such a case, it does suggest she is not the sort of judge who bends over backward to protect police officers accused of outrageous misconduct.

Ruth Rainsberger, who suffered from dementia, had three children. William was the most attentive, looking in on her every day, buying groceries for her, and helping her with her finances. When he visited her on a Tuesday afternoon in November 2013, according to his account, he found the door to her apartment unlocked and found his mother lying face down on the floor in a pool of blood, her head and shoulders covered by a bloody blanket. He called 911 and reported that someone had "bashed [his mother's] head in."

Benner zeroed in on William Rainsberger as his prime suspect early on, speculating that he had killed his mother for his share of the $80,000 to $100,000 in savings he and his siblings would inherit. Two months after the murder, Benner wrote a probable cause affidavit that local prosecutors deemed inadequate. Five months later, he wrote another affidavit that was nearly identical but included some new details. This time prosecutors agreed there was enough evidence to charge Rainsberger with murder. But that evidence was either misleading or blatantly false.

Benner alleged that Rainsberger had called his brother from their mother's apartment nearly an hour before he called 911, suggesting a conspiracy to kill her for her money. But the time stamp for that cellphone call, which was an hour behind Indianapolis time because the call was routed through a tower in Chicago, actually showed that Rainsberger, consistent with his account, had talked to his brother after calling 911 to report the attack. "Benner chose to use the inaccurate and incriminating time in his affidavit," Barrett noted in an opinion joined by the two other judges on a 7th Circuit panel.

Benner also claimed that video surveillance from a Kroger supermarket where Rainsberger said he had stopped for an iced tea on the way to his mother's apartment showed him pulling out "a straight object from his person" (suggesting a murder weapon) and dropping it in a trash can. In fact, the video, which Barrett and her colleagues watched, showed no such thing. Instead, it looked like Rainsberger was throwing away an empty beverage can—again, consistent with his account. Barrett concluded that "a reasonable jury could find that Benner deliberately mischaracterized Rainsberger's behavior, which does not appear furtive on the video."

Benner averred that nothing had been taken from the apartment, which also was not true. While police found cash, a checkbook, and credit cards, a purse and prescription drugs were missing.

Benner depicted Rainsberger as unconcerned about his mother. He noted that Rainsberger waited outside for an ambulance and "left his mother unattended until the police arrived." But Rainsberger said he did that because his mother's apartment was hard to find, an explanation that Benner omitted. When police questioned Rainsberger and his brother on the day of the attack, Benner said, they never inquired about their mother's welfare. But as Barrett noted, "Benner knew…that Rainsberger was receiving updates by text from his sister Rebecca, who was at the hospital, and that Rainsberger had expressed concern about how he would get to the hospital from the police station."

Benner claimed Rainsberger and his siblings "stormed out" of the police station after the detective asked him and his brother to take a polygraph test. Benner did not mention that he had summoned the three of them to the police station under false pretenses the day after the attack, supposedly to discuss the findings of the autopsy on their mother, then suddenly accused Rainsberger and his brother of murdering her. Benner also falsely claimed he never heard from the family after that incident.

Between Benner's first and second affidavits, tests of Ruth's clothing and the blanket that was covering her head and shoulders found the DNA of two males. It did not match Rainsberger or his brother. Benner also left out that information.

"An officer violates the Fourth Amendment if he intentionally or recklessly includes false statements in a warrant application and those false statements were material to a finding of probable cause," Barrett noted. "An officer similarly violates the Fourth Amendment if he intentionally or recklessly withholds material information from a probable cause affidavit."

Barrett had little trouble concluding that police did not have probable cause to arrest Rainsberger without Benner's alleged lies. Without those, she said, the remaining evidence "supports nothing more than bare suspicion." She rejected "Benner's argument that he could have obtained a valid warrant if he had proceeded differently," saying that is "beside the point," since the question is not "whether an officer could have satisfied the Warrant Clause" but "whether he actually satisfied it."

Would it have been clear to a "reasonable officer" in this situation that his conduct was unlawful? Barrett thought it would.

Barrett was unimpressed by Benner's claim that "he is entitled to qualified immunity if the facts of the hypothetical affidavit [without the misrepresentations] demonstrate 'arguable probable cause'—in other words, if a competent officer faced with the facts in the hypothetical affidavit could reasonably if mistakenly believe that those facts were sufficient to establish probable cause." That argument "doesn't make sense," she noted, because qualified immunity depends on how a "reasonable officer" would have understood the law in the same situation, not in a counterfactual scenario.

"What Benner is really arguing, then, is that he is entitled to qualified immunity if a well‐trained officer could 'reasonably but mistakenly conclude' that it was
lawful to include an incriminating lie in an affidavit because the lie wasn't material to the probable cause determination," she wrote. "Of course, a competent officer would not even entertain the question whether it was lawful for him to lie in a probable cause affidavit. The hypothetical officer in the qualified immunity analysis is one who acts in good faith. That is what the standard of 'objective reasonableness' is designed to capture."

At this stage of the case, the allegations against Benner had already been enough to persuade a federal judge that the detective did not deserve qualified immunity. And unlike many plaintiffs in federal civil rights cases, Rainsberger did not have much difficulty locating precedents with closely similar facts. As Barrett noted, "The unlawfulness of using deliberately falsified allegations to establish probable cause could not be clearer." Still, Barrett's scathing dissection of Benner's arguments, combined with her opinions in other Fourth Amendment cases, is an encouraging sign for those of us who think judges defer to the police too much and too often.

NEXT: Grand Jury Charges 1 Louisville Police Officer Involved in Breonna Taylor Shooting With 'Wanton Endangerment'

Qualified Immunity Police Abuse Corruption Fourth Amendment Search and Seizure Litigation Supreme Court Amy Coney Barrett

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90 responses to “Amy Coney Barrett Demolishes the Qualified Immunity Claim of a Detective Accused of Framing a Man for Murder

  1. Good, this is the kind of case decisions that will make it harder to to smear her.

    1. Sullum must’ve found out that she ruled in favor of lockdowns, so she’s ok to Reason now

      1. Nice CACLL signaling.

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    2. Good, this is the kind of case decisions that will make it harder to to smear her.

      Your English is startlingly good, and you have done very well to survive in the jungle for 75 years, on nothing but on nuts, grubs and leaves.

      I have to tell you though, that the Emperor has surrendered.

      Other things have changed too.

      1. Holy shit, that’s epic…well-played, sir. 🙂

      2. Okay yes, I know. They’ll do it anyways, but other roads of attack aren’t as effective in this climate. If they could murder her on letting bad cops of the hook, she’d be a lot more screwed than if they try to get her on being religious.

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    4. No, not at all. The Democrats will smear her by making shit up. They won’t even have to find a liar like Blasey Ford to spin a tale that doesn’t hold water.

      -jcr

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  2. Asia for the Asians, Africa for the Africans but White countries for EVERYBODY? Diversity is just a code word for White Genocide.

    1. You’re free to move to Africa or Asia if you want. You’d be doing a lot of white people here in the US a favor by doing so, give it some thought.

    2. You’re an asshole Lark. Go fuck off.

    3. the fuck is a white country?

      1. the fuck is a white country?

        Liechtenstein?

        1. was expecting Iceland … nice

      2. On my map, Antarctica.

        1. Have you seen what the Somalians have done to Antarctica?

          1. Well I know there are no roads there….

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    4. Go back to The Federalist’s comment section. OOPS! I’m sorry, that was terribly insensitive of me, you asshole.

    5. We “whites” seem to be thriving in this era of “white genocide”.You might be full of shit.

    6. Most minorities like white people. In fact White Pride day (St. Patrick’s day) is one of the most popular holidays among all races.

    7. Did not see this coming. The CACLLs who have colonized the website with their incessant bitching about Reason and how Democrats are more evil than Republicans being replaced by a whole new level of Mormon haters and white nationalists.

      1. Acronyms really don’t work if you’re the only one who knows it

        1. I googled it. It’s the Canadian Association of Child Life Leaders. I’m not sure why Canadian child psychologists are so racist, but I guess it’s just one of those Canada things Rufus will have to enlighten us on.

          1. If this keeps up, we’ll have to build a great firewall between us and Canada, and make Canada pay for it. Fucking racist Canadians.

            Good job Dee, exposing how these racist Canadian child psychologists have corrupted the Reason comment section!

      2. Is there more than one Mormon hater here? I’ve only spotted one.

        -jcr

  3. “What Benner is really arguing, then, is that he is entitled to qualified immunity if a well‐trained officer could ‘reasonably but mistakenly conclude’ that it was lawful to include an incriminating lie in an affidavit because the lie wasn’t material to the probable cause determination,” she wrote. “Of course, a competent officer would not even entertain the question whether it was lawful for him to lie in a probable cause affidavit. The hypothetical officer in the qualified immunity analysis is one who acts in good faith. That is what the standard of ‘objective reasonableness’ is designed to capture.”

    There’s a lot of assumptions built in there about how “reasonable” police officers act, and I would suggest you might observe this particular officer’s actions to glean some insight into how “reasonable” officers actually act rather than what your assumptions tell you about how they ought to act.

    1. What the what?

      1. He’s conflating “reasonable” with “ordinary” or “commonplace’.

        I don’t know how often stuff like this happens in the grand scheme of things… but I do know that it is too often.

        And worse than police officers taking “shortcuts” like this is a court system that allows it.

  4. I would make the penalty for this sort of “bearing false witness” equal to the penalty for the crime involved.

    1. Supposedly the death penalty is an option in such a case if the is executed.

    2. Yes! That’s one of the points in my libertopia. I call it authoritative obstruction; if you present yourself as an authority, and try to harm someone else with lies, forgery, etc, then you get the maximum punishment your lies would have inflicted if they had been believed.

      Used car salesman lies about a car he is selling? He owes what he expected to sell it for. Doesn’t matter if he actually did sell it or not.

      Cop lies abut evidence to get a murder charge? He gets the maximum punishment for murder, regardless of how far his lies were believed.

    3. Nah, that’s not nearly harsh enough. There should be a statutory minimum sentence of twenty years for lying to get a warrant, because it’s not just reckless endangerment, it’s an attack on the integrity of the legal process. Morally, it’s treason.

      -jcr

  5. The case is an encouraging sign that the SCOTUS contender is not the sort of judge who bends over backward to shield cops from liability for outrageous misconduct.

    If you want an interesting take on Barrett, check out Robert Barnes’ comments on her. I think you’ll be interested to find that she’ll be no friend of individual liberty, and will almost always side with government power at nearly every turn.

    According to Barne’s who has gone through her rulings, she will side with the government and the establishment at every chance.

    From a libertarian perspective, Logoa looks a lot better.

    1. So Paul, basically a female Kavanaugh? Not so good then.

      Was there only one Janice Rodgers Brown in the judiciary?

      1. And Rogers, sorry.

      2. Barnes has an interesting take on how he views a judge. Instead of looking at their credentials, he looks at their background… how they came up, whether they clerked or not, (not so much FOR WHOM they clerked — which he claims is a system of gaming and smokescreens).

        He notes (aside from the technical problems of her past rulings– and reliance on the precedent of deferment to governments who declare ’emergencies’) that she comes from a big money, corporate/catholic background and is very, very ‘establishmentarian’ because of it.

        1. Such a theory is more interesting if it has made successful predictions of past justices’ futures.

      3. Kavanaugh has actually surprised me on a few of his rulings. If we got rid of Roberts and Alito, liberty just might have a chance. Hopefully Don Willet gets gets a shot on the next go around.

        1. Don Willet for Supreme Court nominee. I second your motion

    2. He must’ve skipped this case. This case refutes that claim. Now the claim has to be modified to say she will side with the government on every *other* case.

    3. If you want an interesting take on Barrett, check out Robert Barnes’ comments on her.

      That might have been an interesting take if he’d bothered to tell us why he thinks her opinions on certain cases were legally incorrect, rather than just tossing out what amounts to a bunch of ad hominem (citing who her father was and who he worked for, where she comes from, etc) and complaining that she tends to rule in favor of certain categories of parties. I don’t find that sort of critique useful in any way.

      1. Barnes has strong opinions on some judges based on actually having dealt with them professionally. He really, really prefers the cuban.

        I don’t know if he’s right, but he does know quite a bit about federal judges and how they see things.

        He’s a conservative civil rights attorney, so he comes at things from that point of view… which is an odd one. He’s not entirely libertarian… but he’s pretty far down that path.

        1. Sorry, but I don’t find “I know, take my word for it” to be a particularly compelling argument.

      2. Agree. His entire take on her was useless

  6. a court-invented doctrine that limits such claims to cases in which officials are accused of violating “clearly established” law.

    And somehow, the very constitution a law officer swears to uphold is somehow not “clearly established” law.

    1. Well that’s because the judges think the constitution is what they say it is, rather than what it actually says.

  7. Trump said that he has to get his nominee confirmed before the election because that’s where the election outcome will be decided and he wants 5 votes to give it to him.

    Still, the gun nuts are sitting on their guns and not protecting us from tyranny. What a waste of an amendment.

    1. Hey past me, what’s new in your life? The timeline’s all screwed up now, so I’m wondering if things are different with you.

      1. John is Red Tony so your joke is feeble and needs work.

        1. No, actually, I’m future you from an alternate timeline. Kind of offended you don’t remember me.

          But then, I didn’t know it was an alternate timeline until Ginsburg croaked. She was SUPPOSED to die in 2022. So I’m wondering what else is different.

          Did we still shack up with Martin in July?

          1. I went to the doctor in July and found out that I’m an inch taller than I thought I was. How tall is that?

            1. 5’7″. Don’t lie and pretend we’re different people, Tony. There’s no reason to be ashamed of having a future version of you from an alternate timeline sent back in time due to his crimes.

              Now, about Martin: did we hook up?

              1. Wrong. You’re a fraud. And I’m not old enough to know anyone named Martin.

                1. …dude, he’s got the GREATEST dick.

                  Like, it’s only 6 inches and uncut, but it’s WIDE as HELL.

                  You’ve GOT to hook up with him, bro. He used to work at the hot yoga place.

                  1. How much foreskin are we talking about.

                    1. Not that much?

                      Lemme put it this way, he’s not gonna fit many boats in his dock.

        2. Not gonna lie…Red Tony is more interesting.

          1. And certainly more believable.

            1. He lacks the impotent rage that I find amusing though. Must have grown out of it in the future.

              1. Probably due to Martin’s dick.

                1. He actually took off in August in the original timeline. Don’t know why.

                  But yeah, he was a GREAT fuck.

    2. The guns are what will protect us from tyranny.

      We don’t need the government to put you down when you and your trash friends try to revolt when you get angry about Trump’s re-election. With the 2nd Amendment, we have the ability to do that to you ourselves.

      Which is why leftist scum like you really hate the right to bear arms…you know that there’s a very fatal limit to how far we’ll allow you to throw your tantrums.

      1. So it’s not about protecting the country from government tyranny, it’s about using government tyranny to murder your political opponents. I am so surprised, gosh.

        1. Oh, you’re not political opponents when you riot, Tony. You’re just a direct physical threat. Guns are for dealing with threats.

          1. Oh this timelines present Tony could conflate defending yourself and your property with executing your political opponents.

            Mostly because he’s ok with the second scenario.

        2. Self-defense isn’t murder, lefturd.

          -jcr

    3. Trump said that he has to get his nominee confirmed before the election because that’s where the election outcome will be decided and he wants 5 votes to give it to him.

      Still, the gun nuts are sitting on their guns and not protecting us from tyranny.

      I guess I missed the part where what you describe is even a COTUS violation, let alone constitutes “tyranny” that should make me want to start shooting the modern equivalent of redcoats in the face.

  8. …Barrett’s scathing dissection of Benner’s arguments, combined with her opinions in other Fourth Amendment cases, is an encouraging sign for those of us who think judges defer to the police too much and too often.

    Sullum is deliberately spitting on RGB’s grave by praising this would-be usurper over whatever cop apologist is certain to be appointed otherwise.

    1. You’re spitting on RBG’s grave by confusing her with the acronym for red-green-blue color values.

      1. RGB is a person of color.

        1. it’s a cryptic reference

    2. I’ll happily piss on her grave for her votes on Kelo, Raich, and Heller. She was scum.

      -jcr

  9. Excellent opinion and decision by the 7th Circuit, and a prime example how the doctrine of qualified immunity is intended to work and how it does not protect incompetent officers, or those who deliberately lie and deceive. Thanks for sharing.

  10. NEVER talk to the police. EVER

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  12. Is this officer still in the employ of the police dept.?

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  17. There is no legal basis for “qualified immunity” at all, it was pulled out of the ass of some judge in the mists of time, and it’s clearly forbidden by the equal protection clause. Will Barret vote to end it? Probably not, but she might kick out a few of the most egregious examples of it.

    -jcr

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