Courts deny qualified immunity for violent and corrupt cops: Good news (for once)

Qualified immunity: A history

Throughout the United States, law enforcement officers have stolen valuablesshot childrenkilled vulnerable people, and gotten away with it — thanks to a legal doctrine called qualified immunity.

Qualified immunity, which shields public officials from liability in civil cases, was created by the courts in the 1960s as a tool to suppress the civil rights movement. It was 1961, a year after the Supreme Court outlawed segregated public buses (Boynton v. Virginia 1960). 15 Episcopal priests, taking part in the Mississippi Freedom Rides to challenge the continued segregation of the South, were arrested after entering the coffee shop of a Jackson, Mississippi, bus terminal. The group was charged with breaching the peace and sentenced to four months in jail.

The priests sued (Pierson v. Ray 1967), alleging the police and the local judge violated the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act by false arrest and imprisonment for exercising their civil rights. The original charges were dropped and the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the public officials were not immune from federal lawsuit. However, the Supreme Court disagreed.

[Chief Justice Earl] Warren wrote in his opinion that, while police are not entitled to “absolute and unqualified immunity,” officers should not be held liable “if they acted in good faith and with probable cause in making an arrest under a statute that they believed to be valid.”

The officers had argued that they believed arresting the priests for breach of peace was justifiable because the aim was to prevent violence. If this were the case, the Supreme Court ruled, the officers deserved immunity…Warren’s idea that officers acting in “good faith” should not be held accountable for federal civil rights violations laid the groundwork for today’s interpretation of qualified immunity for police.

The Supreme Court then expanded qualified immunity in Harlow v. Fitzgerald (1982), removing the “good faith” requirement and creating a higher standard for plaintiffs:

Henceforth, government officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate “clearly established” statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.

To show that a police officer violated a “clearly established” right, the courts require plaintiffs to point to an already existing judicial decision with substantially similar facts. Even when the court finds that officers violated a plaintiff’s constitutional rights, they could be granted qualified immunity if the plaintiffs cannot identify a previously decided case that involves the same “specific context” and “particular conduct.”

In other words: An officer who knowingly violates someone’s constitutional rights will generally be protected from suit unless the victim can identify previous judicial opinions that addressed the specific context and conduct.

Unconstitutional restraint

The Supreme Court declined to intervene to block a lawsuit against four Dallas police officers for the death of Tony Timpa in 2016.

Timpa, 32, called 911 for assistance during a mental health episode. He informed the dispatcher that he was experiencing “a lot of anxiety,” was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and hadn’t taken his medication. Supervising Police Sergeant Kevin Mansell and Officers Dustin Dillard, Danny Vasquez, and Domingo Rivera arrived on scene to find Timpa already handcuffed by two private security guards.

Timpa was yelling “help me” and “you’re going to kill me!” while rolling back and forth on the grass by the side of the road. Dillard forced Timpa onto his stomach and pressed a knee on Timpa’s upper back in the prone restraint position for over fourteen minutes. “In his protective vest and duty belt, Dillard weighed approximately 190 pounds,” the 5th Circuit noted.

About 10 minutes into the restraint, Timpa started to show signs of losing consciousness:

He continued to cry out “Help me!” but his voice weakened and slurred. Much of what he said was too muffled to be comprehensible. Forty-five seconds later, he suddenly stilled and was quiet except for a few moans. Then, he fell limp and nonresponsive for the final three-and-a-half minutes of the restraint.

The officers laughed, mocking the way he struggled on the ground (body cam footage). When Timpa stopped responding, the officers assumed he was asleep, making jokes about waking him up for school. Shortly after the officers placed Timpa on an ambulance gurney, the paramedics determined that he was dead.

Dr. Kim Collins, MD, a forensic pathologist…concluded, “to a reasonable degree of medical certainty,” that Timpa’s death was caused by mechanical asphyxia, which occurs when an individual’s torso is compressed, preventing respiration and circulation of oxygen…She further testified that Timpa would have lived had he been restrained for the same amount of time in a prone position without force applied to his back.

Timpa’s mother sued the officers for violating Timpa’s Fourth Amendment rights. District Judge David Godbey, a George W. Bush appointee, ruled that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because—in his opinion—there was no clearly established case law that the prone restraint position for an extended period of time violated the Constitution. Timpa’s family pointed to Gutierrez v. City of San Antonio, a 1998 case involving a man who died while hog-tied and placed face down in the back of a patrol car. But Godbey said Timpa was face down with hands and feet shackled, not hog-toed, which in his view was enough to make Guitierrez inapplicable.

The 5th Circuit disagreed, overturning Godbey’s ruling. “Within the Fifth Circuit, the law has long been clearly established that an officer’s continued use of force on a restrained and subdued subject is objectively unreasonable,” Judge Edith Brown Clement (a George W. Bush appointee) wrote for the unanimous panel.

…the district court failed to consider the continued use of such force after Timpa had been restrained and lacked the ability to pose a risk of harm or flight. We hold that the state of the law in August 2016 clearly established that an officer engages in an objectively unreasonable application of force by continuing to kneel on the back of an individual who has been subdued.

Jail death

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court ruling denying qualified immunity to jail officers who allowed a man to die while under their care.

Steven Mitchell Qualls, 28, was arrested by Jasper (Texas) police officers for public intoxication after refusing to leave the hospital in January 2019. Qualls was “obviously intoxicated” during the booking process, unable to answer questions. Once in his jail cell, Qualls asked staff for help repeatedly, getting more incoherent as time went on.

About ten hours after he arrived at the jail, Qualls first vomited “a dark black liquid, which he smeared around on the floor and rubbed his face in.” He remained lying in his own vomit, unable to comply with Dispatcher O’Dell’s instructions to remove himself by simply “roll[ing] over.” When the officers picked Qualls up to clean him and his cell, he screamed in pain. O’Dell asked if she needed to call EMS. [Sergeant] Griffin told her not to. O’Dell asked what she should do if Qualls threw up again. [Officer] Linebaugh told her to just “let him,” and laughed that he didn’t want to “hold [Qualls’s] hair.”

Qualls vomited more black liquid about three hours later. As before, Qualls was left face down in his own bile and screamed in pain when the officers tried to move him. But the situation quickly grew more dire. While cleaning the vomit, Griffin and Linebaugh noticed “a small tied-off piece of a bag”—the kind used to hold illegal narcotics—“on the floor covered in Qualls’s vomit.” About four hours after that, Qualls vomited black liquid a third time. He then began to cry out to the officers. Qualls did so at least 62 times. And he made noises of pain at least 70 times. Yet no one came. Five hours later, Qualls was dead.

Qualls’ mother, Frances Earline Sims, sued the officers under 42 U.S.C. § 1983), alleging that Griffin, Linebaugh, and O’Dell all violated Qualls’s constitutional rights. Sims successfully convinced both the lower court and appellate court that a 2006 case, Easter v. Powell, clearly established Qualls’s rights, preventing the officers from claiming qualified immunity:

In Easter, a case decided well before Qualls’s death, we explained that a prisoner can show his clearly established rights under the Eighth Amendment were violated if a prison official “refused to treat him, ignored his complaints, intentionally treated him incorrectly, or engaged in any similar conduct that would clearly evince a wanton disregard for any serious medical needs.”

…the officers imply that Easter is distinguishable because the officers here monitored Qualls, provided him sustenance, spoke with him, cleaned him and his cell, and so on. But those facts aren’t as helpful to the officers as they think. Prominently missing in this record are any facts suggesting the officers addressed Qualls’s serious medical needs—what matters under Easter. More importantly, these facts capture in a nutshell why the officers aren’t entitled to qualified immunity at this point. On this record and without considering genuineness, the officers had a front-row seat to Qualls’s agonizing demise but did nothing to stop it.

Coerced confession

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s denial of qualified immunity for four police officers who coerced a false confession from a 14-year-old boy.

Lawrence Montoya was arrested in January 2000 for the robbery and murder of Denver school teacher Emily Johnson. She has been violently beaten and left to die at her home. Three detectives—Martin Vigil, Michael Martinez, and R.D. Schneider—and Lieutenant Jonathan Priest identified people in Montoya’s friend circle as persons of interest in the crime.

Montoya, 14 years old at the time and suffering from “obvious cognitive deficiencies and developmental delays,” in the words of the District Court judge, was brought in for questioning. He told the detectives that a friend of his brother, Nicholas Martinez, picked him and other friends up in Johnson’s stolen car, but that was the extent of his involvement. The detectives did not relent:

After approximately 50 minutes of being questioned, Mr. Montoya agreed to speak with the officers without his mother present. The officers then pressured Mr. Montoya to admit greater and greater levels of involvement in the crimes. They lied about evidence, threatened Mr. Montoya, made false promises of leniency, fed him the details surrounding Ms. Johnson’s murder, yelled at him, and insulted him. Notably, each time the officers suggested that they could conduct a polygraph or compare Mr. Montoya’s fingerprints and DNA to evidence at the scene, he was eager to comply, certain the additional evidence would demonstrate he was not involved in Ms. Johnson’s murder. When Mr. Montoya was alone with the officers, he cried and even sobbed heavily at times…Ultimately, the officers coerced him into repeating enough of the details they had fed him that they ended their interview…

The statements made by Mr. Montoya outside of his mother’s presence were not consistent, cohesive, or accurate. Mr. Montoya made contradictory statements about significant details of the crime… Over and over, Officer Vigil tried to correct these errors, suggesting that Mr. Montoya had it wrong until Mr. Montoya agreed to Officer Vigil’s version of the facts.

The detectives used these coerced false confessions to get an arrest warrant. Montoya was ultimately convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole. After 13-and-a-half years behind bars, the prosecutor’s office dismissed all charges in exchange for Montoya pleading guilty to accessory to murder after the fact—he received a 10-year sentence, with credit for time served resulting in his release from prison.

Montoya sued the officers for violating his Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The officers sought to have the case dismissed, claiming they had probable cause to arrest him even if one removes the false statements used in the warrant.

The courts granted qualified immunity in some instances, but held that three of Montoya’s claims can proceed: inadequate training by the city of Denver, a conspiracy involving the law enforcement officers, and a violation of Montoya’s rights under the Franks decision (which held that a warrant affidavit that includes a knowingly false statement is not valid).

Mr. Montoya also alleges a civil rights conspiracy in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. His claim is that Defendants “reached an understanding, engaged in a course of conduct, acted in concert and otherwise conspired among and between themselves to deprive [Mr. Montoya] of his Constitutional rights, and did deprive him of said rights, including . . . [the right to be] free from arrest by false statements and omissions in the arrest affirmation.” He alleges that using false statements in the affidavit was an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy… we agree with the district court that Mr. Montoya plausibly alleged a common conspiratorial objective.