The Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear several cases involving a legal doctrine known as “qualified immunity,” which makes it difficult to sue police for serious misconduct.
Calls for the court to weigh in on qualified immunity have grown amid the nationwide protests for law enforcement and policing changes that followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
The court, however, said Monday, that it would not hear any of the cases before it related to the issue in its next term, which is slated to begin in October.
Law enforcement officers who behave badly are rarely prosecuted, so lawsuits brought by victims of misconduct are often the only way to hold them accountable. And there’s no other way for victims to get compensation for a violation of their rights. But a string of decisions by the Supreme Court has made it very difficult for victims to win in court.
One of the cases the court refused to take up came from Idaho, where Shaniz West gave police the keys to her house when they were looking for her ex-boyfriend, who was a fugitive. But instead of going in, they bombarded the house for hours with tear gas, destroying everything inside. It turned out he wasn’t there, but when West sued, she lost. Lower courts sided with the police, saying no court had ever explicitly ruled that giving police authority to enter your home did not constitute permission to bomb it with tear gas.
In another case that the court refused, a man in Tennessee named Alexander Baxter was bitten by a police dog after he surrendered to police in Nashville, who were responding to reports of a burglary. Alexander said in his petition that the dog was released on him after he had already surrendered.
Justice Clarence Thomas, a member of the court’s conservative majority, wrote in the Baxter order that he would have preferred to review the case.
“I continue to have strong doubts about our §1983 qualified immunity doctrine,” Thomas wrote.
Taking up these or other cases would have presented the high court with an opportunity to jump into the national debate over whether suing police officers for misconduct should be made less challenging.
A 1982 Supreme Court rule on qualified immunity says police cannot be held legally responsible for violating someone’s civil rights unless courts have “clearly established” that the conduct is illegal. It was intended to protect police from frivolous lawsuits and prevent judges from second-guessing every split-second decision law enforcement officers must make.
Two Supreme Court justices on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum have repeatedly questioned the rule. Sonia Sotomayor, perhaps the court’s most liberal member, said it has created “an absolute shield for law enforcement officers.” Thomas has also said the doctrine has no basis in the Constitution.