Qualified Immunity

Prison Guards Who Forced Naked Inmate To Sleep in Sewage and Urine Were Given Qualified Immunity. SCOTUS Disagreed.

The legal doctrine is a free pass for rampant government abuse.

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In September of 2013, prison guards escorted a naked Trent Taylor, then an inmate at the John T. Montford Psychiatric Facility Unit in Lubbock, Texas, to his cell. That cell, he contends, was covered in "massive" amounts of human feces—on the ceiling, on the floor, on the walls, and on the windows. He didn't eat for four days because he was anxious he'd risk contamination. Nor did he drink anything after observing that feces were "packed inside the water faucet."

He next moved to a seclusion cell, one that came without a toilet, bed, or water fountain. Its only contents: sewage, built up from a clogged drain on the floor. When Taylor asked to use the restroom, the guards denied his request and told him to urinate in the drain. He would then have to sleep in his own urine, since the floor was already steeped in waste, and since he was without a bed. After 24 hours, he urinated on himself involuntarily, and slept, naked, in sewage.

Taylor sued those guards for violating his Eighth Amendment rights. In December 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit conceded his rights were violated—but awarded the defendants qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that makes it especially difficult to sue public officials for misconduct.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ruled 7–1 that was the wrong decision. It's a welcome change from the high court, which over and over again has declined to consider a spate of cases surrounding qualified immunity and its deleterious effects.

Such shyness is rich when considering that it was the Supreme Court that created qualified immunity. It is the American public, however, that has had to reckon with the consequences. The doctrine shields public servants from federal civil suits unless their misbehavior was "clearly established" in previous case law.

That standard sounds benign. Quite the opposite, as it requires that any alleged wrongdoing be outlined with near-exacting precision in a court precedent within the same federal circuit or via the Supreme Court. A salient example: The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals gave qualified immunity to two cops who stole $225,000 while executing a search warrant. Though the judges agreed the officers "ought to have recognized that the alleged theft was morally wrong," the two cops couldn't have known for certain without a specific case on the books telling them so. Their victims were not afforded the right to sue.

The 5th Circuit decision—now overturned by the Supreme Court—was similarly confounding. Circuit Judge Jerry E. Smith acknowledged that the guards infringed on Taylor's right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment. But because the exact amount of time he spent in those cells—six days—had not yet been spelled out somewhere in a previous ruling, the claim could not stand.

"The Fifth Circuit erred in granting the officers qualified immunity on this basis," wrote the Supreme Court in an unsigned opinion. The newly-minted Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not participate, and the lone dissenter was Associate Justice Clarence Thomas. The panel added that "no 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."

He will now have the right to sue those guards in federal court. "The respondents here claim they need breathing room to do their job well," Kelsi Brown Corkran, the lead attorney on the case, tells Reason. "Apparently doing their job well was putting a suicidal individual in a feces-covered cell, where he had no access to water, where he had to sleep in sewage. What possible policy rationale could you come up with that would justify not holding prison officials liable under those circumstances?"

The Supreme Court concurred, invoking Hope v. Pelzer (2002), a precedent that established that qualified immunity can be overcome when the unconstitutionality of the misconduct at hand is "obvious."

A review of past cases would show that a long line of constitutional violations have seemed similarly obvious, though not all plaintiffs have been so fortunate as to overcome qualified immunity. There was the Georgia sheriff's deputy who shot a 10-year-old while aiming at the family's nonthreatening dog; he received qualified immunity. There was the Los Angeles Police Department officer who shot a 15-year-old boy who was making his way to school; he received qualified immunity. There was the cop who kneed a subdued suspect in the eye "20 to 30 times"; he received qualified immunity. There were the two cops who unleashed a police dog on a surrendered man, and the cops who beat and arrested a man for standing outside his own house. They all received qualified immunity.

The majority of the American public opposes the doctrine. There have been several legislative attempts to fix it, although they've been dead on arrival. Rep. Justin Amash (L–Mich.) spearheaded the first effort in the U.S. House, co-sponsoring a bill with Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D–Mass.) to end qualified immunity. It eventually achieved tripartisan support. And while Republicans have been more resistant to change on this issue, Sen. Mike Braun (R–Ind.) unveiled a bill that would have significantly rolled back the doctrine. Neither piece of legislation ever received a vote.

President Donald Trump expressed during his tenure that he would block any attempts at reforming qualified immunity. Such an aversion appears to be at odds with the GOP's promise to be the party of "limited government," as qualified immunity is nothing more than a free pass for rampant government abuse at the expense of the little guy. It makes more sense, however, when noting the power of the law-enforcement lobby, which Trump courted. President-elect Joe Biden has said he is not ready to scrap the doctrine but would instead like to "rein [it] in."

Though Taylor can now seek recourse, the ruling this month does not alter qualified immunity. Even still, it's the first SCOTUS decision of its ilk in 16 years—and hopefully not the last.

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  1. It doesn’t apply to criminal charges so it’s not a free pass. That comes from the DA.

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  2. The legal doctrine is a free pass for rampant government abuse.

    No it’s not.

    1. Shhhh. Narrative is talking.

    2. Depends on how you define “rampant.”

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  3. 1. A salient example: The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals gave qualified immunity to two cops who stole $225,000 while executing a search warrant.
    2. The Supreme Court concurred, invoking Hope v. Pelzer (2002), a precedent that established that qualified immunity can be overcome when the unconstitutionality of the misconduct at hand is “obvious.”

    Exercise for the reader; reconcile these two rulings.

    1. Were the officers charged by the DA? If not, why not?

      1. There was a handy excuse for not permitting the civil suit, aside from qualified immunity: the money was stolen pursuant to a search warrant, ergo it was the government which stole it in the first place, and legally; the cops stole it from the government, not the citizen.

        Why the DA didn’t charge them with theft, I do not know. Maybe their defense was they stole it from the citizen, so the government had no skin in the game.

        Any way you slice it, it was FYTW.

        1. the money was stolen pursuant to a search warrant, ergo it was the government which stole it in the first place, and legally; the cops stole it from the government, not the citizen.

          Huh, actually, that makes sense. Money ‘seized’ during warrant, cops steal money from evidence locker.

          Why the DA didn’t charge them with theft, I do not know. Maybe their defense was they stole it from the citizen, so the government had no skin in the game.

          Any way you slice it, it was FYTW.

          Yeah, no shit. If the DA couldn’t manage to prosecute when the money is seen as stolen from the government, then the system is entirely corrupt, and ending QI is bordering on a waste of time.

        2. The other part of this (which would require reading the details of these cases) that I don’t understand is, why didn’t or don’t they sue the department? People sue police depts all the time and get massive payouts. Why on earth, knowing the QI is a standing doctrine, would you think, “Hey, I know, let me sue the guy who earns $52,000 a year for this massive violation to my rights” again, knowing that QI is a nearly impossible standard to overcome.

          Either there’s more to these cases than we’re being told in the media, or these individuals have really shitty lawyers.

          1. Because the police department gets QI *and* gets to say ‘warn’t me, govnor’.

        3. “the money was stolen pursuant to a search warrant, ergo it was the government which stole it in the first place, and legally; the cops stole it from the government, not the citizen.”

          No, just because something is seized pursuant to a search warrant doesn’t mean that stops belonging to the owner.

          1. According to the courts it does.

      2. Being charged by the DA doesn’t get your money back.

  4. Oh bull. Republican politicians say QI is overrated so true libertarians must vote for Trump.

    1. Headline: Colorado eliminates Qualified Immunity

      Article content: Actually they didn’t.

      The problem isn’t that qualified immunity isn’t a bullshit premise, it’s the leaky thatched roof on top of a craptastic building standing on top of a quicksand foundation. People think if they fix the leaks in the roof, everything will be better. And statements like: The legal doctrine is a free pass for rampant government abuse. are demonstrably false.

      As the Colorado article details above, you realize just how big a waste of time focusing on QI is.

      Some important snippets:

      To be clear, the new Colorado law doesn’t end the doctrine of qualified immunity; Section 1983 claims filed by Coloradans in federal court would still be subject to qualified immunity. Only the U.S. Supreme Court or Congress has the power to alter or abolish qualified immunity, though prospects are mixed at the moment.

      To assuage those concerns, the Act will require law enforcement agencies to indemnify their officers, meaning that they won’t have to worry about being on the hook for potentially expensive legal bills.

      Officers would be personally liable only in cases where they “did not act upon a good faith and reasonable belief that the action was lawful” or were criminally convicted for conduct that triggered the civil rights lawsuit. But even in cases where officers acted unreasonably or in bad faith they would only be responsible for paying 5% of the judgement or $25,000, whichever is less. In addition, officers who successfully defend themselves against “frivolous” lawsuits may recover attorney’s fees.

      SB20-217’s approach to indemnification codifies long-standing practices that are already routine for many agencies. A 2014 study from UCLA Law Professor Joanna Schwartz examined the indemnification practices for 44 of the nation’s largest law enforcement agencies (including the Denver Police Department) and found that “officers paid just .02% of the dollars awarded to plaintiffs in police misconduct suits.”

      By bypassing qualified immunity, but paying out judgments assessed against the officers, Colorado’s new law ensures that victims are made whole and that good cops aren’t deterred from doing their jobs.

      That’s just a short example of the parade of horrors in that bill. It’s so full of ifs/buts/maybes and other byzantine exceptions that it pretty much fails to address the issues at hand.

      You still have a system where the DA failed to prosecute, the agency failed to discipline, the union refused to budge on its protections, and in the end, the offending officer will never see the inside of a courtroom, and the fees are still paid by the agency if… and ONLY if a lawsuit ever even makes to trial, let alone succeeds.

    2. Thanks for the information. Republican politicians

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  5. “No [CO] could have reasonably concluded that it was constitutionally permissible to house Taylor in such deplorably unsanitary conditions for such an extended period of time.”

    Leaving open the door for “less than extended” periods of time to be constitutionally permissible.

    So five days of living in community excrement should be acceptable moving forward. Oh and Clarence Thomas should be the first to try this out to make sure it’s not too egregious.

  6. And how much can you possibly sue two lowly CO’s for? Maybe you’ll get five, ten grand out of them? At least he got the win, maybe they’ll let him kill himself now. Fucking torture.

    1. Exactly. What the hell happened upstream from this? What was the union’s role in running interference? Why was the state/agency unmoved by wrongdoing? Did a lawsuit against them fail? If so, why?

  7. Rand Paul introduces bills opposing senseless wars and the surveillance state. They send a hyper-partisan goon to attack him from behind and break his ribs.

    Rand Paul introduces legislation opposing no-knock warrants and qualified immunity. Antifa/bLM goons physically attack him and his family on the street.

    1. Did you see the interview with Rand Paul’s wife about that? She pleaded with the mob that her husband is the one who wrote the bill, and that only incited the mob to further anger.

      Just goes to show you cannot reason with a liberal mob.

  8. The USSC disagreed with this grant of immunity, as it bloody well should.

  9. So Amy gets on the Suprema and instead of burning atheist Jezebels at the stake and whipping them with red-hot coathangers, we are seeing action to cut back on legal lynchings by union goon looter cops! Izzis a great country or what?

  10. The judicial’s invention of Qualified Immunity is a logical conclusion, an extension of the universal political paradigm based on the initiation of force. This is the basis for all governments. Right’s violations logically follow from unrestricted violence. By what principle could authorities be restricted when they have the authority to initiate violence? NONE!
    Refusal to admit that laws are not based on reason, nor do they create order or justice, is a psychological decease, a superstition that glorifies violence over reason, rights, choice.
    This dangerous superstition threatens existence of our species.

  11. Did the prisoner experience any physical harm? I understand the insult to his dignity and his disgusting experience.

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