Federal Appeals Court ‘clarifies’ qualified immunity standard

NJ State PBA Legal Corner

By Robert A. Fagella, Esq., Paul L. Kleinbaum, Esq.

In the November issue of NJ Cops Magazine, we reported on two U.S. Supreme Court cases which applied the judicial doctrine of qualified immunity to dismiss claims against the law enforcement officers without requiring a trial. The court reaffirmed the standards which federal courts must apply on a case-by-case basis when evaluating qualitied immunity claims. Since those decisions were issued, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal appeals court which covers New Jersey, issued a decision in which it reversed a lower court’s award of qualified immunity to the officers involved. The decision illustrates the complexities of applying the qualified immunity defense.

In Devin Jefferson vs. City of Elizabeth, a police officer noticed the plaintiff driving at a high speed with his car alarm on. Because the officer suspected that the vehicle may have been stolen, he followed the plaintiff and activated his siren and lights in an attempt to pull over the plaintiff’s vehicle. The plaintiff did not pull over, and a car chase ensued. A second officer joined this pursuit based on information communicated over the radio. The plaintiff’s vehicle eventually struck a fire hydrant, and the officers surrounded his vehicle. Despite being surrounded, the plaintiff attempted to escape by reversing his vehicle and striking one of the police vehicles. The second officer did not witness the plaintiff striking the hydrant or backing up into the police vehicle. He also did not witness any police officers having to get out of the way to avoid being hit. As the plaintiff fled in his vehicle, the second police officer fired at the plaintiff’s vehicle, striking the plaintiff’s left forearm and fracturing bones in his arm.

The plaintiff filed suit in the state district court against the second police officer, claiming excessive force was used in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The trial court dismissed the case, holding that the second officer’s use of deadly force was reasonable under the circumstances and, even if it was not, he was shielded from liability by qualified immunity.

However, the Third Circuit disagreed and reversed the district court’s judgment on qualified immunity. The appeals court concluded that an otherwise “non-threatening” individual engaged in vehicular flight was entitled to be free from the use of deadly force if it was “unreasonable” for an officer to believe his or others’ lives were in immediate jeopardy from their actions. Therefore, because a jury could conclude that the second officer’s decision to shoot the plaintiff was not objectively reasonable, the court concluded that the officer was not entitled to qualified immunity and must have the case presented to a jury.

Qualified immunity is a judicially created doctrine. It allows a law enforcement officer to have a case dismissed without a trial. But the difficulty is defining the circumstances that justify early dismissal of an excessive force claim. In its decision, the Third Circuit discussed the applicable standards of Supreme Court cases for determining whether an officer is entitled to qualified immunity. In particular, the appeals court focused on one of the standards – whether plaintiff’s claimed constitutional right was “clearly established” at the time of the alleged violation. The Third Circuit relied on its previous decisions in clarifying that, first, a court must define the right allegedly violated and, second, ask whether that right was “clearly established” at the time of the alleged violation – whether the facts surrounding the right asserted were sufficiently clear that a reasonable officer should have understood that what he is doing was a violation.

In determining whether the constitutional right at issue (freedom from excessive force) was “clearly established” under the facts of this case, the Third Circuit reviewed decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court and decisions from other federal courts of appeal which granted qualified immunity where deadly force was used against suspects attempting to evade arrest while driving. The Third Circuit distinguished the facts from cases in which the fleeing driver had displayed much more threatening or aggressive behavior toward others prior to, or during, the car chase so that it posed an immediate risk to the officers and the public. For example, in one of these cases, the plaintiff had gotten into a physical altercation with a “former crime partner” and was wanted on a felony, no-bail warrant. Other similar cases involved “a Hollywood-style car chase of the most frightening sort,” “chaotic flight” and threats by the plaintiff that he had a gun and would shoot at the officers if they did not abandon their pursuit. Those cases warranted dismissal based on qualified immunity. But the Third Circuit decided that similar facts were not present in the Jefferson case, so dismissal without a trial was improper.

The appeals court concluded that it was clearly established that an otherwise non-threatening individual engaged in vehicular flight is entitled to be free from being subjected to deadly force. In this case, according to the court, the second officer did not witness or know about any similar facts before using deadly force against the plaintiff. He did not have any reason to believe that the plaintiff was armed, and he did not know if the plaintiff was in fact driving a stolen vehicle or that the plaintiff rammed into the other officer’s vehicle. Therefore, according to the court, because a jury could conclude that the officer’s decision to shoot the plaintiff was not objectively reasonable, the officer was not entitled to qualified immunity.

It is noteworthy that two judges concurred in the decision and issued separate opinions. They noted that, based on certain studies and policies, it should be “crystal clear” that, with the exception of a narrow set of circumstances already defined by police agencies, it is never reasonable and will almost always be reckless for a law enforcement officer to open fire on a suspect fleeing in a motor vehicle. In other words, officers should understand that shooting at a fleeing suspect will almost never warrant early dismissal of a case based on qualified immunity. That questionable conclusion, in light of prior Supreme Court decisions, is the true holding of the case.

This decision does not mean that the officer’s actions were unlawful. Instead, it means that the officer was not entitled to the immediate dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims that unlawful deadly force was used and that a jury would decide whether the officer’s actions were “objectively reasonable.” The case also illustrates the difficulties in the actual application of a qualified immunity defense, and how courts can twist the Supreme Court qualified immunity decisions based upon the facts of each case. In short, whether an officer is entitled to qualified immunity depends upon the specific facts before the court. In a best-case scenario, the qualified immunity defense results in a dismissal of the case before it goes to trial and avoids the uncertainties of a jury’s decision. Conversely, where a court concludes an officer should have known the circumstances did not justify shooting, a jury must decide the reasonableness of the officer’s actions. But that, of course, triggers the uncertainty of a trial that the qualified immunity defense was intended to avoid.