Our primary federal civil rights statute, colloquially called “Section 1983,” says that any state actor who violates someone’s constitutional rights may be sued in federal court. This remedy is crucial not just to secure relief for individuals whose rights are violated, but also to ensure accountability for government agents. Yet the Supreme Court has crippled the functioning of this statute through the judge-made doctrine of “qualified immunity.” This doctrine, invented by the Court out of whole cloth, immunizes public officials even when they commit illegal misconduct unless they violated “clearly established law.” That standard is incredibly difficult for civil rights plaintiffs to overcome because the courts have required not just a clear legal rule, but a prior case on the books with functionally identical facts.
In Pauly v. White, 874 F.3d 1197 (10th Cir. 2017), the Tenth Circuit used qualified immunity to shield three police officers who brutally killed an innocent man in his home. The officers had no probable cause to think Samuel Pauly had committed any crime, but they stormed his home with guns drawn and shouted that they had him surrounded—yet failed to identify themselves as police. Mr. Pauly and his brother reasonably believed they were in danger and retrieved two guns to defend themselves. After his brother Daniel fired two warning shots to scare away the unidentified attackers, Samuel was shot dead by one of the officers—Ray White—through the front window of his home.
The Tenth Circuit held that Officer White’s use of deadly force was objectively unreasonable and that it “violated Samuel Pauly’s constitutional right to be free from excessive force.” But the court still granted Officer White qualified immunity; there was no prior case with sufficiently similar facts, so the unreasonableness of his conduct was not “clearly established,” in the court’s view. What’s more, the court held that because Officer White had qualified immunity, the other two officers automatically received immunity as well, even though their own reckless conduct caused Officer White to commit the unlawful shooting.
This decision was erroneous even under existing precedent, but it also throws into sharp relief the shaky legal rationales for qualified immunity in general. The text of Section 1983 makes no mention of any sort of immunity, and the common-law background against which it was adopted did not include a freestanding defense for public officials who acted unlawfully; on the contrary, the historical rule was that public officials were strictly liable for constitutional violations. In short, qualified immunity has become nothing more than a “freewheeling policy choice” by the Court, at odds with Congress’s judgment in enacting Section 1983.
The Cato Institute has therefore filed an amicus brief urging the Court to hear Mr. Pauly’s case and to reconsider its misguided qualified immunity jurisprudence. This brief will be the first of many in an ongoing campaign to demonstrate to the courts that this doctrine lacks any legal basis, vitiates the power of individuals to vindicate their constitutional rights, and contributes to a culture of near-zero accountability for law enforcement and other public officials.