By David E. Mastagni and Taylor Davies-Mahaffey
In the recent City of Tahlequah v. Bond decision, the United States Supreme Court revisited the protections officers should receive through qualified immunity (City of Tahlequah v. Bond, 2021 U.S. Lexis 5310 ).
Qualified immunity provides immunity from certain lawsuits raised against government officials acting in their official capacity. It is important to note that qualified immunity not only protects peace officers but any federal, state or local public official. The Supreme Court has evaluated the protections afforded to government officials under qualified immunity many times before and has held that “The central purpose of affording public officials qualified immunity is to protect them ‘from undue interference with their duties and from potentially disabling threats of liability’” (Elder v. Holloway  510 U.S. 510). The Supreme Court has also stated that “This accommodation for reasonable error exists because officials should not err always on the side of caution because they fear being sued” (Hunter v. Bryant  502 U.S. 224). For peace officers, this means that enforcement of the law is prioritized over the recovery of money damages in a lawsuit.
Public officials and peace officers are entitled to qualified immunity unless they knew or reasonably should have known that the action taken within their sphere of official responsibility would violate the constitutional rights of the plaintiff (Harlow v. Fitzgerald  457 U.S. 800). The Supreme Court in Harlow went on to apply an objective reasonableness standard for protection from liability, stating, “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” (Harlow at 818). For a plaintiff to overcome qualified immunity, they must prove that the constitutional right allegedly violated by an officer was “clearly established.”
In City of Tahlequah, three police officers responded to a 9-1-1 call. The decedent’s ex-wife requested police assistance because he was intoxicated and would not leave. While officers spoke with him in the garage doorway, one of the officers asked if he could pat him down for weapons. He denied the officer’s request. As the officer walked toward him, the decedent began walking toward the tools on the garage wall. The officers ordered him to stop, but he kept walking, grabbed a hammer from the back wall, and turned to face the officers. After he obtained the weapon, the officers backed up and drew their firearms. The officers ordered him to drop the hammer, but he did not comply. The decedent then raised the hammer as if he was about to throw it at the officers. In response, two of the officers fired their weapons, killing him.
The decedent’s estate sued the two officers who fired their weapons for alleged violations of his Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force. The District Court granted the officers’ motion for summary judgment, both on the merits and under qualified immunity. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the District Court’s decision, finding that several cases established that the officers’ conduct was unlawful.
In their review of the case, the Supreme Court held that the officers did not violate any clearly established law. The court explained that the doctrine of qualified immunity shields officers from civil liability as long as the officer “does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights.” The court explained the importance of specificity in rules and precedence because it is often difficult for an officer to determine how the relevant legal doctrine will apply in the specific scenario they are facing.
The Supreme Court found that none of the decisions the Court of Appeals relied upon came close to establishing that the officers’ conduct was unlawful. The court held that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity and reversed the Court of Appeals decision, thus shielding the officers from further litigation.