Supreme Court declines to weigh in on legal doctrine that shields law enforcement

The Supreme Court declined on Monday to take a closer look at...

Posted: Jun 15, 2020 2:33 PM

The Supreme Court declined on Monday to take a closer look at a legal doctrine it created nearly 40 years ago that critics say is shielding law enforcement and government officials from accountability.

The decision comes as protesters across the country have been reacting to the death of a black man, George Floyd, at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis. The death has sparked nationwide protests pushing for more police accountability and reform.

In recent years, legal scholars, judges and justices on all sides of the ideological spectrum have criticized the legal doctrine known as "qualified immunity," arguing that it is not grounded in the proper legal authorities and it too often shields officials from accountability.

Under the doctrine, an officer will not be liable even if he violated the Constitution unless it was "clearly established" by prior cases that his conduct was unconstitutional.

That requires a high bar and makes it difficult to win unless the situation is similar to a prior case with nearly identical facts. In some cases with unique fact patterns, of which there are many, officers have been granted immunity even if they have been found to have acted in violation of the Constitution.

Across the ideological spectrum, critics say that the courts that have developed the doctrine over the years have gone astray.

One of the cases denied by the court involved Alex Baxter, a homeless man who was being pursued by Nashville police on a cold winter night about five years ago on suspicion that he had been breaking into homes. Officers chased him into a basement of a home and released a dog to look for him. The dog found him, the police were present and officers were on either side of Baxter. The officer corralled the dog, and Baxter put his hands up.

According to court papers, police officer Spencer Harris released the police dog to attack Baxter, who sustained an injury that brought him to the hospital. Brad Bracey, the other officer on the scene, failed to intervene in the attack.

When the lower courts handed down their opinion on Baxter, they granted qualified immunity to the police officer because given the unique fact pattern of the case, they were unable to determine that the law did not violate "clearly established law."

"Even if Baxter raised his hands, the other circumstances ... weigh against a finding that 'every reasonable official would understand that what [Harris did] is unlawful.' For that reason, Harris is entitled to qualified immunity," the appeals court opinion reads.

The Supreme Court will not review that appeals court opinion.

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the unsigned order, signaling his willingness to take up a qualified immunity case and expressing his "strong doubts" on the doctrine.

Thomas harkened back to the congressional response to the reign of terror by the Klu Klux Klan, which produced the Civil Rights Act of 1871. According to the dissent, the law gave individuals a right to sue state officers for damages to remedy violations of their constitutional rights.

Thomas argues that the court's application of the qualified immunity doctrine is "no longer grounded in the common-law backdrop against which Congress enacted the 1871 Act."

David Cole, national legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, called the decision by the court deeply disappointing.

"The Supreme Court's deeply disappointing decision today to punt on the critical issue of official immunity, in this time of national reckoning over police violence, places the ball squarely in Congress's court," Cole said. "We have seen the deadly consequences play out on the streets, and Black Americans have largely paid the price."

This story has been updated with additional details from the court's actions.

West Lafayette
Clear
79° wxIcon
Hi: 83° Lo: 56°
Feels Like: 79°
Kokomo
Clear
77° wxIcon
Hi: 82° Lo: 54°
Feels Like: 79°
Rensselaer
Clear
75° wxIcon
Hi: 82° Lo: 55°
Feels Like: 75°
Fowler
Clear
79° wxIcon
Hi: 82° Lo: 56°
Feels Like: 79°
Williamsport
Clear
75° wxIcon
Hi: 82° Lo: 55°
Feels Like: 75°
Crawfordsville
Clear
75° wxIcon
Hi: 82° Lo: 53°
Feels Like: 75°
Frankfort
Clear
75° wxIcon
Hi: 80° Lo: 53°
Feels Like: 75°
Delphi
Clear
78° wxIcon
Hi: 83° Lo: 56°
Feels Like: 79°
Monticello
Clear
78° wxIcon
Hi: 86° Lo: 58°
Feels Like: 79°
Logansport
Clear
73° wxIcon
Hi: 82° Lo: 54°
Feels Like: 73°
More sun, warmer temps with increasing humidity
WLFI Temps
WLFI Planner

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 775686

Reported Deaths: 14025
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion1066871814
Lake572681031
Allen43500701
Hamilton37653427
St. Joseph37508568
Elkhart29882471
Tippecanoe23732232
Vanderburgh23634405
Porter19690327
Johnson19020394
Hendricks18271323
Clark13730199
Madison13719348
Vigo12949256
Monroe12691180
LaPorte12645225
Delaware11218198
Howard10832237
Kosciusko9851124
Hancock8855150
Bartholomew8343157
Warrick8216157
Floyd8128183
Grant7457181
Boone7289105
Wayne7273201
Morgan6988143
Marshall6376117
Dubois6327118
Cass6130112
Noble607391
Dearborn605878
Henry6001111
Jackson520977
Shelby514898
Lawrence5020128
Gibson471697
Montgomery464792
Clinton462755
DeKalb461485
Harrison459277
Huntington429082
Whitley421045
Steuben414561
Miami411573
Jasper403957
Knox397291
Putnam388762
Wabash373884
Adams358956
Ripley354571
Jefferson351487
White341854
Daviess3110100
Wells305981
Greene298485
Decatur294393
Posey288235
Fayette287764
Scott285458
LaGrange278873
Clay277649
Washington257638
Randolph248583
Jennings243349
Spencer240531
Fountain239050
Starke231559
Owen226759
Sullivan224143
Fulton210446
Jay204132
Carroll200623
Orange194456
Perry193139
Vermillion183444
Rush179127
Tipton174348
Franklin173935
Parke157816
Pike144034
Blackford138732
Pulaski124748
Newton124137
Benton111615
Brown106743
Crawford106716
Martin92715
Warren88715
Switzerland8568
Union73910
Ohio58711
Unassigned0429

COVID-19 Important links and resources

As the spread of COVID-19, or as it's more commonly known as the coronavirus continues, this page will serve as your one-stop for the resources you need to stay informed and to keep you and your family safe. CLICK HERE

Closings related to the prevention of the COVID-19 can be found on our Closings page.

Community Events