Qualified Immunity

Cop Who Allegedly Beat a Subdued Suspect and Released a Police Dog on Him Tried To Claim Qualified Immunity

How is this even a question?


Suppose a cop punches a suspect in the face, whips him with a chain, and releases a police dog on him—all after that suspect had been subdued. Should a reasonable officer know that violates someone's rights?

Such was the query recently before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. This time, fortunately, the panel agreed that the officer should be expected to know this. Things must be bad when this is even at question.

On December 31, 2017, Eric Tyler Vette alleges that he was apprehended by Sgt. Keith Sanders of the Montrose County Sheriff's Office, who had attempted to pull him over for a warrant check. Vette initially fled. After being subdued by two other officers, Vette claims, Sanders took out his frustration on the arrestee, beating Vette and siccing his police dog, Oxx, on him. Oxx then bit Vette's shoulder, leaving teeth marks and injuries seen in photos provided to the court.

Sanders claimed qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that makes it difficult to hold state actors accountable when they infringe on your constitutional rights. 

"I think that shows how disconnected [qualified immunity] has become from our common understandings of justice and constitutional policing," says Ashok Chandran, assistant counsel with the Legal Defense Fund, the firm representing Vette. "Anyone that you'd ask on the street would have a gut reaction that that is something the Constitution doesn't permit. And yet the protections of qualified immunity have grown so expansive that I think officers in many cases feel like they have a decent shot—and they're not wrong."

The Supreme Court conjured qualified immunity decades ago when it decided that government officials can avoid civil rights suits if their alleged misconduct was not "clearly established" in prior case law. In practice, that means plaintiffs lose the ability to bring their cases before juries if they cannot point to a pre-existing court precedent that outlines the details of their case with meticulous exactitude.

It's supposed to serve as a bulwark against frivolous lawsuits. In fact, it stops a lot more than that. The doctrine has protected two officers who allegedly stole $225,000 while carrying out a search warrant, a cop who left lasting physical damage after kneeing a subdued suspect in the eye 20 to 30 times, a prison guard who hid while an escaped inmate raped a nurse, a cop who ruined a man's car after conducting a bogus drug search, a cop who shot a 15-year-old, and a cop who shot a 10-year-old, among other cases.

So it's not difficult to see why Sanders thought he had a chance.

"This court's precedent…would make it clear to every reasonable officer that punching an arrestee, hitting him in the face with a dog chain, and allowing a police dog to attack him, all after he is subdued, violates the Fourth Amendment," wrote Circuit Judge Carolyn B. McHugh.

Sanders also sought to dismiss Vette's claim on factual grounds, highlighting that the plaintiff's verified complaint went against Sanders' incident report and affidavit. That is, of course, the sort of he-said/he-said question that we have juries to adjudicate. The photographs were the only pieces of hard evidence before the court, which Sanders said vindicated him. The Tenth Circuit disagreed. 

"Although Sergeant Sanders quibbles with the severity of Oxx's encounter with Mr. Vette, the photographs do not blatantly contradict—and indeed, serve to corroborate—Mr. Vette's account that Oxx attacked and bit his right shoulder," writes McHugh. "Sergeant Sanders's contention that the photographs 'visibly demonstrate' that Oxx's attack was 'accidental,' rather than intended by Sergeant Sanders, is even less persuasive."

In any case, the judge continues, Sanders "will be free to make these arguments to a jury." Remember: The question at this stage isn't whether Sanders is guilty; it's whether his alleged offenses should go to court at all. Rejecting a qualified immunity defense does not ensure a state actor is held accountable, nor does it render any sort of civil judgment on a plaintiff's behalf. It merely gives that plaintiff the right to file a suit.

Sanders apparently thinks his word alone should have been sufficient evidence of his innocence. Should he wish, he is free to present that argument at trial. "People can be credible if they don't have corroboration. People can not be credible even if there is corroboration," says Chandran. "That's the kind of call that we leave in the American justice system to a jury."

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  2. Now do hyper militarized policing under stalinist democrat one party rule.

    1. “Community Outreach Services”

  3. Related: The five cops who ventilated that kid in Oklahoma after he surrendered and put down his gun are getting charged with first-degree murder.

    1. This would be the same kid who had just committed armed robbery of a convenience store—for the second time that day!—pulled out a pistol from his pants, and then stuck his right hand in the front pocket of his hoodie? Yeah, fuck that kid. Because robbers only carry one weapon, right?

      Good thing he’s White, or OKC would still be burning. How hard is it to just put your hands over your head and leave them there? Christ, he might be out on bond now if he’d just done that.

      1. The cops clearly had a bead on him, so it wouldn’t have taken much to at least wait until he pulled his hand out before plugging him.

        The one who used a taser ISN’T being charged, incidentally.

        1. Less-lethal pumpkin ball thrower, AIUI, and what it looked like in the video. Some cops I’d talked too, thought it might’ve been sympathetic fire from the others after she fired the ball at the robber. Wouldn’t be the first time, and it likely explains why no one tried advancing on the robber to subdue him and cuff him, after he dropped the pistol with the extendo.

          As I said in the earlier post, I’m not sure I’d have shot. Though that may be because there weren’t a lack of cops who could—looked a bit in the videos like the ending of The Blues Brothers. It’s still not a criminal act, given his lack of compliance, and what his hands were doing. Again as I said, he wouldn’t be the first armed robber to carry two weapons. Nor would he be the first to decide he wasn’t going to jail anymore, or that he was tired of living, and he wanted company.

          Charging the cops with murder is ridiculous, but also AIUI, par for the course for this DA in OKC. Which is strange, given other LE orgs in the state (especially OHP, and Tulsa PD) act like they’ve a green light to shoot people who need shooting.

  4. How is shooting an unarmed trespasser on jan 6th not even a question?

    1. Self defense is allowable. So the question becomes whether a group that is breaking and entering poses enough of a risk to justify action. Whether or not the victim is armed is not necessarily relevant. If a group has broken the door to your home and is climbing in, you don’t have to wait until they get all the way in and then frisk them to see if they are armed before you can act.

      1. “to your home ”

        wasn’t his home nor anything like it Jeff

        1. >>Jeff

          in one

        2. And your business. Or even the fucking toilet stall in Target you’re taking a dump in.

          What is with you people?

          1. If you have to completely change the facts of the situation to adequately make your point, that should be a giant hint that your point is bullshit.

          2. It wasn’t his business either.

            “What is with you people?”

            I know the difference between my home and a government office?

          3. And your business. Or even the fucking toilet stall in Target you’re taking a dump in

            If you’re standing in a hallway in a business and you see someone bust open a window and start to come through and you shoot and kill them, you will go to jail in every state in the country because you are a murderer.

            What the fuck is with YOU?

          4. Oh that’s easy. They are pro-Second Amendment, pro-self defense, pro-castle doctrine, right up until it’s the wrong type of victim.

            1. A cop killing an unarmed woman in a government building that was in no way threatening his life or safety implicates absolutely none of the things you mentioned.

              Tell us again about how people should be imprisoned for posting memes, lefty shit.

      2. Fuck off, Jeff.

      3. Yes. We’ve seen the lefts bullshit rationalization before. Just because you and other idiots have this shitty rationalization doesn’t mean it is correct in any manner.

        They had enough armed guards, more than rhe number of protesters in the building. And had seen no weapons. Keep justifying this

      4. No. The question to ask there is, “Did the victim, at the moment deadly force was used, pose an imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm to the person using deadly force or to an innocent third party?” For Babbit, the answer is No, she didn’t. Unarmed, and the shooting officer had two more armed cops backing him up. Smack her in the tits with a stick and shove her back through the window.

        For the kid in OKC, that Red Rocks is talking about just upthread, the answer is Yes. When you’ve just committed armed robbery, it’s not unreasonable when you stick a hand in a front pocket or behind you (like his other hand was doing), for the police to think you’re going for another weapon. Maybe I would’ve shot, maybe I would’ve waited to see what the tac officer’s less lethal munition did to the kid. It damned sure doesn’t meet the criteria for an unlawful shooting of an armed robber.

        1. It’s okay to second-guess the motives of the cop when the the cop shoots a Real Murican like St. Ashli.

          1. Goddamn, but you’re fucking stupid.

            I laid out the standard for using deadly force, the two separate situations, and how they met or didn’t meet the standard. I can’t make it any clearer to your ignorant ass why one’s a criminal act, and why the other shouldn’t be.

            Waste of my time.

            1. He’s not just stupid, he’s wilfully stupid. He goes out of his way not to understand things.

  5. White + Insurrectionist + Republican + MAGA Hat + Black Cop = The bitch deserved to die.

  6. https://twitter.com/JackPosobiec/status/1370141121444188160?s=19

    BREAKING: Chauvin’s lawyers have tracked down the pro-BLM social media posts of potential jurors and are reading them back to them on the stand.

    1. BLM is just a social club for frustrated people, not a Marxist cult or anything like that.

    2. Antifa went back to attacking the federal building and a bank in Portland. Insurrection yet?

  7. https://twitter.com/disclosetv/status/1370124356236550148?s=19

    NEW – Feinstein, Democrats introduced a bill to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines just hours after U.S. House passed major new gun control laws.

    1. Reason editors completely shocked.

    2. Interesting times.

  8. Chris Rock did say, “they are bringing an ass whipping with them”. You have to know that Rin-Tin-Tin is part of the chase team if you run. Saggy pants make a K-9s life easy.

  9. You realize that it wasn’t the officer seeking qualified immunity but the attorney representing him.

  10. It’s called “pet therapy”. Quit complaining.

  11. Who knew that people who seek and acquire a “job” that pays them with stolen money would be a criminal?

  12. Of course reason did not specify what color the suspect was, so I couldn’t know if he was dangerous. From a google search, I see he’s not a nigger, but dark enough that the cop certainly has reason to fear for their lives. Clearly justified.

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