Qualified Immunity

A Euclid Cop Killed a Man Who Had Been Sleeping in His Car. The Cop Can't Be Sued. The City Can't Be, Either.

The Supreme Court has a chance to fix this. The stakes are high.

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On March 13, 2017, Luke Stewart was asleep in his car in Euclid, Ohio, when a man knocked on the window at 7 a.m. That man was Euclid Police Department (EPD) Officer Louis Catalani, though he did not announce himself as law enforcement. Startled, Stewart waved before starting the car and attempting to drive away.

Catalani and EPD Officer Matthew Rhodes weren't having it. The former opened the driver's side door, reaching his right arm around Stewart's face as he tried to dig into a pressure point underneath his jaw. Stewart began to scream. The latter entered via the passenger side and sought to eject Stewart from the vehicle. Neither effort worked, and Stewart drove off with Rhodes in tow.

That interaction lasted between 10–15 seconds. What happened next was similarly short-lived—59 seconds—and consisted of Stewart driving between 20–30 miles an hour while Rhodes punched him repeatedly, tased him six times, and hit him in the head with the taser, leaving an open wound. The minute concluded with Rhodes shooting Stewart twice in the torso, once in the neck, once in the chest, and once in the wrist.

He later died. He was 23 years old.

A federal court last summer agreed that a reasonable jury could find that Rhodes violated Stewart's constitutional rights when the officer shot him dead—a confrontation set in motion because Stewart had fallen asleep in his parked car. He was never told he was under arrest, nor did Rhodes ever display his badge. Yet in the same breath, the court said that Stewart's estate may not bring their lawsuit before any such jury, because Rhodes was awarded qualified immunity.

The legal doctrine prohibits victims from suing government officials for violating their rights unless the precise manner in which those rights were violated has been spelled out as unconstitutional in a prior court ruling.

Though it sounds farcical, that's not at all a surprising outcome. Yet there is a shocking part of the decision, handed down in August by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit: They also shielded the municipality from the lawsuit on the grounds that the officer was protected by qualified immunity—something the U.S. Supreme Court specifically ruled against in Owen v. City of Independence (1980). That overreach will have major implications for how victims are able to hold cities accountable in the future.

In their suit, the Stewart estate zeroes in on the city's training program, alleging it left officers ill-prepared for the very serious duties they would undertake in the field. It appears it was not a very serious training program, weaving in jokes about use of force—it included a graphic, for instance, of a cop beating an unarmed suspect facedown on the ground with the caption "protecting and serving the poop out of you"—as well as Chris Rock's comedy routine on cops who assault suspects based on racial animus. "Get a white friend," he advises.

The 6th Circuit conceded such materials are "inappropriate," "tasteless," and "perhaps inadequate." Even so, the family will have no right to sue Euclid, they concluded, because Rhodes' misconduct was not "clearly established" in a prior court ruling.

"It is black letter law that municipalities are not entitled to qualified immunity," says Easha Anand, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center and lead counsel on the case. "The Supreme Court decided decades ago that the policy reasons we justify qualified immunity for individual officers…just don't apply to municipalities. The city of Euclid wasn't deciding in the heat of the moment whether to shoot or not shoot a potentially dangerous suspect. The city of Euclid has the luxury of time and space to design this really appalling PowerPoint."

The Supreme Court will again have a chance to weigh in on the matter, with Stewart v. City of Euclid on the docket for their consideration—a decision that will be released come Monday.

The stakes are high, perhaps stratospherically so, as Congress debates qualified immunity, one of the sticking points in negotiations over police reform. Sen. Tim Scott (R–S.C.), who is leading the GOP's side in the talks, recently floated what seemed like a major compromise, reportedly proposing that cities be held liable for claims instead of individual police officers. It remains unclear how such a plan would work if federal courts now assert that municipalities are effectively protected by qualified immunity.

"If this 6th Circuit decision is allowed to stand, and if qualified immunity is essentially extended into the area of municipal liability, then any kind of amendment that you make to ensure that municipalities are held accountable would have to account for qualified immunity," says Anya Bidwell, an attorney at the Institute for Justice. "It would make it even more complicated for Congress to amend municipal liability, because municipal liability would have this residual qualified immunity aspect."

Qualified immunity has protected two cops who assaulted and arrested a man for standing outside of his own house, two cops who allegedly stole $225,000 while executing a search warrant, and a cop who caused thousands of dollars in damage to a man's car during a bogus, hours-long drug search for which the officer did not lawfully obtain consent. Without analogous court precedents expressly outlining that misbehavior, the victims were barred from suing. There are many more such stories.

The standard required is incredibly myopic. "Stewart has pointed to no cases in this circuit involving an officer being driven in a suspect's car, much less a case that shares similar characteristics," such as the "speed" behind the wheel or the exact level of "aggression" Stewart exhibited, wrote Circuit Judge Eugene Edward Siler Jr. The kicker: Siler acknowledged that Stewart exhibited a "lack of aggression" toward Rhodes, and it is undisputed that the victim didn't exceed 30 miles per hour as he drove. Even though one might assume those factors would weigh in Stewart's favor, they don't. It doesn't matter that they look good for the victim; what matters is that no court precedent exists with that exact same fact pattern.

Such a denouement is all too common. That it now precludes holding the city accountable is not common, and it shouldn't become so. "The family has suffered an unimaginable loss," says Anand. "They've suffered that loss not because of a tragic and unforeseeable set of circumstances, but because of the kind of police interaction that officers should be trained to manage with the appropriate care and respect for civilian life." Even the 6th Circuit admitted that a jury could come to the same conclusion. As it stands, however, the Stewart family will have no right to appear before one.

NEXT: Biden Wants To Spy on American Bank Accounts

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  1. “…the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit: They also shielded the municipality from the lawsuit on the grounds that the officer was protected by qualified immunity—something the U.S. Supreme Court specifically ruled against in Owen v. City of Independence (1980).”

    Ok, I am not a lawyer but I know some of you here are; how is this kosher, for a lower court to arrive at a decision contrary to precedent established by SCOTUS? To my layman’s eyes it just looks like FYTY.

    1. There’s certainly a big element of FYTY, but from a quick review the Sixth Circuit did not explicitly contradict the Supreme Court. At no point do they say the city is protected by qualified immunity. They just backdoor the protection in without acknowledging what they are doing.

      The problem is that under the Monell doctrine, a plaintiff has to be able to prove that the violation of his rights was caused by official municipal policy to prevail against the municipality, which means either (1) a formal written policy, (2) unofficial custom that has risen to the position of formal policy, (3) complete and utter failure to train that predictably leads to the violation, or (4) action by a high-level municipal employee (not a beat cop, but maybe the chief of police).

      Owen (the Supreme Court case) was about (4), where the unconstitutional action was taken by the City Manager at the direction of the City Council, and held that municipalities aren’t entitled to qualified immunity. This case is about (3), failure to train. The sleight of hand that the majority pulled was to say that since there was no clearly established constitutional violation, the city’s failure to train couldn’t have lead to a constitutional violation. By importing “clearly established” in the first part of the test, they indirectly afforded the city the protection of qualified immunity even though they never held that the city was entitled to qualified immunity.

      1. Thank you for that very informative brief/memorandum.

        I sounds as though the Sixth Circuit judges went out of their way to arrive at such a conclusion, to protect the municipality; why would they do that? A quick review reveals that the justices are more than 2-1 Republican appointees to Democrat; an inherent tendency to favor the government and police is such instances?

        1. OR maybe maybe they were following the LAW! Wierd, I know.

          1. Municipalities have been sued many times and this has never been the judgment. It’s a case of stare decisis.

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          3. Qualified immunity should be taken away from all cops as this gives these pieces of shit the ability to shoot anyone for any reason. Shooting someone who is shooting at a cop or another citizen is one thing, but shooting just because it makes crocked cops free to do the criminal things they are supposed to be preventing. Fuck all cops.

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    2. Don’t get excited here too fast. Look for non-Billy-Binion facts before following Billy Binion down his rabbit hole. Binion is notorious for interpreting the facts to his agenda, leaving out hugely important information, and of course quoting himself as an expert, which of course is proved because he is constantly referenced…. by himself.

      In just one paragraph in the story, Billy links 3 times to other articles he’s written for the same cause to back up this article. Those articles link to other stuff he’s written which link to other stuff he’s written. How could one possibly argue the facts when he consistently quotes such experts as himself in an ever rising circle jerk of Binion Opinion.

      And of course notoriously, Binion never bothers to actually give any opinion other than his own, and therefore has to argue against nothing. Debating the wind is easy. Real journalists examine both sides of the issue. There are two very legit sides here and counter arguments that reasonable people would at least avail themselves of. Most won’t bother.

      1. “…an ever rising circle jerk of Binion Opinion.”

        Thank you! I have often observed that he is usually pretty one sided and opinion drive, but not to the extent that you have.

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      2. Binion never bothers to actually give any opinion other than his own

        That’s completely unfair. He cites unrelated experts who agree with him all the time.

      3. “Real journalists examine both sides of the issue.” But, very few actually DO that!

        1. So that is an excuse?

      4. “There are two very legit sides here”

        What’s the other very legit side?

        1. Bullshit. I assume pricks like these are two morons and are okay with suffocating a man for trying to pass a bad check. Fuck all cops.

      5. While true, and God knows I’ve pointed out how Binion—and the rest of Reason lately—lie their asses off on criminal justice outrage stories, merely pointing out that Binion’s been a lying asshole in the past, doesn’t invalidate the narrative here.

        I don’t know what happened here with Mr. Stewart. I strongly suspect it’s not as cut and dried as Binion would have you believe. But we need more evidence before forming an opinion about those Euclid officers. At least, I do.

        Nardz in the other thread, is right though: this is cheap, red meat to throw at their readers, while completely ignoring the shitcanning of many of the governance and criminal justice principles we’ve held dear.

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    5. FUCK ALL COPS. Once again the public sees that cops DO NOT PROTECT AND SERVE, but instead act like the crazy little boys looking to be “tough” by killing people for no good reason.

  2. This is corruption. And it’s disgusting. This system is broken.

    1. Stop voting for democrats then, dumbshit.

      1. Because it’s the Democrats who are protesting the overreach of cops? How does that work? I think you meant Trumpublicans. They seem to be the ones who can carry a “Blue Lives Matter” flag into an insurrection. The family of that stupid intruder is actually suing the cops for preventing Ashleighlyli (or whatever her name was) from breaking in to the House chamber. I think their argument is something about her being a sovereign citizen and the Capital being no different than a public park. The idiocy of these morons is exhausting.

        1. I saw the video of that shooting. There was no threat to life or limb posed by the victim to justify the use of lethal force.

        2. Freethinksman…even your identifiers are complete lies. Not just your stated opinions. Fuck, you’re probably not even a man.

          The way to hear from a Leftist about what they’re trying to do to you, is listen to what they’re accusing you of doing

    2. Give me any information you have that corruption is at work here. Tell me who paid who. It’s just another anti-police statement, no facts required.

  3. “It is black letter law that municipalities are not entitled to qualified immunity,” says Easha Anand, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center and the lead counsel on Stewart.

    “Black Letters Matter!”

  4. Was Stewart suspected of selling loosies?

  5. In more light-hearted police news:

    “During a burglary call in SC a police dog bit a cow, then the officer tased the dog, then the cow kicked the officer”

    https://notthebee.com/article/police-dog-bites-cow-during-burglary-call-officer-tases-dog-officer-is-then-kicked-by-cow

    1. It’s the circle of life.

    2. A rewrite of the Bremen town musicians?

    3. cuando cuando cuando will we stop giving assault bovines to canines?

    4. A perfect example of the urban/rural divide in policing. In the big city this may be news but in flyover country it’s just another dog-bites-cow story.

      1. Gotta wonder where that cop hails from. Cow can’t kick you unless you stand in just the wrong spot at just the wrong distance.

        1. Less than 10% of the American workforce is engaged in agriculture of any kind, so I’d expect that most American cops, like most Americans, did not grow up on a farm or ranch. I’ll further note that even many farm kids never learned how to handle cows. I did because Dad tried to supplement the small income from 40 acres of cherry orchards by raising a few beef calves. But half of our neighbors were just cherry farmers and the other half just dairy farmers; I doubt that most of them knew much about the other’s business. And 50 miles south, there was an area where all you could see was bean plants for miles and miles; those farmers knew neither cherries nor cows.

        2. Agreed. It’s a little like accidentally shooting yourself. I doubt he genuinely didn’t know that cows kick any more than he didn’t know guns shoot thing. Arguably the “Don’t point the muzzle at your face.” lesson is a lost cause from the get go.

  6. “[The Appeals court] also shielded the municipality from the lawsuit on the grounds that the officer was protected by qualified immunity—something the U.S. Supreme Court specifically ruled against in Owen v. City of Independence (1980).”

    This is an injustice which should not stand—IF IF IF the ruling is being accurately described, here, which is by no means certain given the author.

    1. See response to my question above, regarding the self referencing author:

      “…an ever rising circle jerk of Binion Opinion.”

      1. Except neither Bluwater nor Ken Shultz understand how qualfied immunity works. That’s not Billy Binion’s fault.

        1. Did Bluwater express an opinion or assert expertise on QI? AFAICT, he gave a spot-on assessment about Binion’s ability to report on Binion’s opinion of facts as presented by Binion.

          And, considering Binion’s assertion that the 6th ruled against SCOTUS and your subsequent disagreement, it would seem that Binion’s ability to judge his own opinions on the facts as presented by Binion should be in question. Arguably, a priori or without regard to Bluwater or Ken’s is/ought misunderstandings/trappings.

          1. “Did Bluwater express an opinion or assert expertise on QI?”

            Go to yesterday’s article about qualified immunity, where (among other absurd legal claims) Bluwater says that every employee is protected by qualified immunity.

            “And, considering Binion’s assertion that the 6th ruled against SCOTUS and your subsequent disagreement”

            I don’t disagree with Binion. I said that “[b]y importing “clearly established” in the first part of the test, they indirectly afforded the city the protection of qualified immunity.” That’s going against Supreme Court precedent. That’s agreeing with Binion.

            1. I don’t disagree with Binion.

              Binion: ‘the U.S. Supreme Court specifically ruled against in Owen v. City of Independence (1980)’

              jph12: ‘from a quick review the Sixth Circuit did not explicitly contradict the Supreme Court”

              So did SCOTUS specifically rule against the 6th circuit or not?

              1. You have the timeline backwards.

                The Supreme Court decided Owen in 1980, over 30 years ago. As Binion explains in the passage you quote, in Owen the Supreme Court specifically held that municipalities are not entitled to qualified immunity.

                This case was decided recently. It does not specifically state that municipalities are entitled to qualified immunity, but then it gives them that protection anyways. The Sixth Circuit gave Euclid the protection of qualified immunity, something the Supreme Court has specifically said municipalities are not entitled to, but did it in such a way that they did not admit that they were doing so. There’s no contradiction between what I wrote and what Binion wrote.

                1. You have the timeline backwards.

                  This is a retarded assessment as I don’t care and it doesn’t really matter. Whether you say high and I say low or I say low and you say high, we aren’t in agreement.

                  The Sixth Circuit gave Euclid the protection of qualified immunity, something the Supreme Court has specifically said municipalities are not entitled to, but did it in such a way that they did not admit that they were doing so. There’s no contradiction between what I wrote and what Binion wrote.

                  You’re being retarded about passing the blame on this. If the 6th granted Euclid protection in such a way that avoided Owen, then Owen didn’t specifically forbid that ruling and Binion was wrong to say so (it would generally forbid it). If you, Binion, SCOTUS, and the 6th all agree, there’s no point in writing the story or commenting amending? notorizing? masturbating? about it.

                  1. “If the 6th granted Euclid protection in such a way that avoided Owen, then Owen didn’t specifically forbid that ruling and Binion was wrong to say so (it would generally forbid it).”

                    This is an incredibly childish statement, even more childish than your “retarded” taunts, so well done there. It displays an remarkable naivety about our legal system and an undue faith in the lower courts. Lower courts regularly rule against binding Supreme Court precedent, sometimes by mistake and sometimes in bad faith. You might want to read Caetano v. Massachusetts for a good example. As Stephen Reinhardt, a judge on the Ninth Circuit, once noted, the Supreme Court can’t reverse them all.

                    “If you, Binion, SCOTUS, and the 6th all agree, there’s no point in writing the story or commenting”

                    But Binion and I agree that the Sixth Circuit and the Supreme Court disagree, which is presumably why he wrote the story (he didn’t consult with me first). If you want to know why I commented, it’s because I was a little bored and that combined with me being tired of reading the same old misrepresentations of how qualified immunity works from people in the comments from people like you who really have no idea what they are talking about.

                    I say good day, sir.

                    1. This is an incredibly childish statement, even more childish than your “retarded” taunts, so well done there.

                      So, childish, but not incorrect.

                      tired of reading the same old misrepresentations of how qualified immunity works

                      Maybe you don’t know the difference between myself, Bluwater, and Quo Usque Tandem. Niether I nor Bluwater made any claims or queries as to how QI works. We claimed Binion is generally biased to the point of incompetence. Your insistence that “but from a quick review the Sixth Circuit did not explicitly contradict the Supreme Courtbut from a quick review the Sixth Circuit did not explicitly contradict the Supreme Court” strongly indicates that he’s, at the very least, being sloppy in his reporting.

                      The fact that you corrected Binion, subsequently claimed he’s correct, and are now insisting that people like myself and Bluwater don’t know squat about QI, despite no claims as such, is most puzzling. Even if you’re a QI expert and Bluwater and myself are, not unadmittedly QI agnostic, the white knighting for Binion is obvious even if the motivations aren’t clear.

                    2. “So, childish, but not incorrect.”

                      The next sentence detailed why it was incorrect.

                      “Niether I nor Bluwater made any claims or queries as to how QI works.”

                      I already explained that Bluwater has, in fact, made absurd claims about how qualified immunity works.

                      “We claimed Binion is generally biased to the point of incompetence.”

                      If you do not understand how qualified immunity works, you aren’t in much of a position to evaluate the accuracy of Binion’s reporting.

                      “Your insistence that “but from a quick review the Sixth Circuit did not explicitly contradict the Supreme Courtbut from a quick review the Sixth Circuit did not explicitly contradict the Supreme Court” strongly indicates that he’s, at the very least, being sloppy in his reporting.”

                      No it doesn’t.

                      “The fact that you corrected Binion, subsequently claimed he’s correct”

                      I never corrected Binion and have not changed my position on the accuracy of his reporting on this case.

                      “Even if you’re a QI expert and Bluwater and myself are, not unadmittedly QI agnostic, the white knighting for Binion is obvious even if the motivations aren’t clear.”

                      Have you ever considered that I believe qualified immunity is a serious problem and having people misrepresent how it works makes reform more difficult?

  7. They also shielded the municipality from the lawsuit on the grounds that the officer was protected by qualified immunity—something the U.S. Supreme Court specifically ruled against in Owen v. City of Independence (1980).

    Well that’s just silly.

  8. A Euclid Cop Killed a Man Who Had Been Sleeping in His Car.

    Was the Officer right to kill the man or off on some tangential plane of reasoning?

    1. Sleeping in a cop’s car is a bad idea.

    2. What’s your angle with this comment? Ohio isn’t even that much of a Flatland.

      1. What’s your angle with this comment?

        Just trying to sum up the opposite and adjacent sides of this story.

        1. There’s no need to be obtuse about it.

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  10. Dance, little outrage monkeys, dance!
    Don’t dare look at the leftist totalitarianism all around you!

  11. Here’s a suggestion: let cities be sued for damages and require a specific politician to sign off on it and require any damage awards to be itemized out on property tax bills every year, together with the names of the politician who signed for it.

    1. I think the payouts should come from that department’s pension fund.

  12. “a confrontation set in motion because Stewart had fallen asleep in his parked car.”

    A Lie. That LIE is called “Blaming the Victim.”

    The COPS. set it in motion. They committed murder.

    Yes the city cant be sued. It could be burned to the ground tho.

    Just sayin.

    Who was it that said:

    ” we have a problem of police murdering people in the streets.” ( paraphrased)

    George Washington, first US President. Read the Constitution documents.

    1. Less than 10% of the American workforce is engaged in agriculture of any kind, so I’d expect that most American cops, like most Americans, did not grow up on a farm or ranch. I’ll further note that even many farm kids never learned how to handle cows. I did because Dad tried to supplement the small income from 40 acres of cherry orchards by raising a few beef calves. But half of our neighbors were just cherry farmers and the other half just dairy farmers; I doubt that most of them knew much about the other’s business. And 50 miles south, there was an area where all you could see was bean plants for miles and miles; those farmers knew neither cherries nor cows.

      1. Please disregard this. It somehow posted far from the comment I was replying to.

  13. I shot a man in Euclid, just to watch him die.

    1. When I see that QI coming, I raise my head and sigh.

  14. Thank you! I noticed that many times he is usually in favor of a one-sided opinion
    Anyway, thank you again for the article https://www.aqra.news/

  15. Considering this is a Binion article, one big question is whether it is proven that the cops did not identify themselves. If the cops did not clearly identify themselves, the driver was defending himself against apparent carjackers. But if he knew they were cops, the cops killed a maniac who was threatening their lives with a 4,000 pound weapon.

    1. At this point, nothing is proven. To be granted qualified immunity, the cops have to concede (for the purposes of the motion, not an actual admission) that everything the plaintiff alleges in the complaint is true but that their conduct still did not violate a clearly established constitutional right. There are some limited exceptions if there’s video or other evidence directly contradicting the plaintiff’s allegations, but any type of he said/she said dispute is resolved in favor of the plaintiff. So in this case, the court held that even if it’s true that the cops did not identify themselves they did not violate a clearly established constitutional right.

    2. The now-deceased driver was no threat to anyone when he was sleeping, or when he started to drive off. There was no reason to use deadly force. And from a libertarian standpoint, no reason to disturb him at all.

  16. I can’t believe any libertarians would try to defend the cops killing someone like this. They should be individually liable, but because of QI they aren’t. So the city should be on the hook.

    I guess you could always try suing the car company. Some lawyers use that type of logic.

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  18. They really need to fix this qualified immunity bullshit.

    If I lost a family member and was told so sorry. . . I would deal with the Stormtrooper cretins myself, by turning them into a fine pink mist.

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