Qualified Immunity for Law Enforcement Reaffirmed: Supreme Court Issues Unanimous Decision in White v. Pauly

Law enforcement officers are generally immune from liability and may only be held civilly liable under federal law if, (1) the officers violate an individual’s constitutional rights and (2) that constitutional right was clearly established at the time of the violation.  The United States Supreme Court recently issued an opinion discussing the second prong of this analysis.  The Supreme Court, in White v. Pauly, 580 U.S. ______ (2017), reminded us that the second prong of the analysis cannot be satisfied by relying upon general statements of law, and that a court cannot deny an officer qualified immunity unless it can cite to a case where an officer acting under similar circumstances as the officer was found to have violated the Fourth Amendment.

The White case involved the use of deadly force. In White, officers were responding to a call of suspected driving under the influence.  The suspect had left the scene and the officers responded to the address associated with the vehicle’s license plates.  For the purposes of summary judgment it was assumed that the other officers had failed to sufficiently identify themselves as police officers and that the plaintiffs believed that their residence was under attack.   Specifically, in response to the plaintiffs’ questions as to who was outside, the officers laughed and said “You (expletive), we’ve got you surrounded, come out or we’re coming in.”

Officer White arrived on the scene several minutes after his fellow officers.  As Officer White arrived he heard the two men state that they had guns.  Officer White took cover behind a stone wall.  The suspect opened the door and fired two shotguns blasts while screaming loudly.  The other man, the driver’s brother, opened the front window and pointed a handgun in the direction of Officer White.  Another officer fired at the brother, but missed.  Several seconds later Officer White shot and killed the brother.

The district court and the court of appeals denied summary judgment to all officers, including Officer White.  The Supreme Court vacated this decision and held that, on the record described by the Court of Appeals, Officer White did not violate clearly established law when he utilized deadly force.  The Supreme Court held that clearly established law does not prohibit a reasonable officer who arrives later to an ongoing police action in circumstances like this from assuming that proper procedure, such as officer identification, have already been followed.  The Supreme Court noted that no settled Fourth Amendment principle requires that late-arriving officer to second-guess the earlier steps already taken by his or her fellow officers.

he Supreme Court remanded the case to the district court, but also included a requirement that the court consider an alternative argument that Officer White had arrived early enough to witness the other officers’ deficient identification and should have known that corrective action was necessary before using deadly force.  The Supreme Court did not offer any opinion regarding the constitutionality of the other officers’ conduct.

This case is a good case for law enforcement, as it once again reinforces the concept of qualified immunity and the provision of immunity to law enforcement when they are acting in gray areas.  However, the case also underscores the importance of utilizing common sense and basic police protocols, such as an officer identifying him or herself when approaching a suspect, and treating suspects with courtesy.  While hindsight, of course, is always 20/20, the entire situation in White may have been avoided had the officers approached the plaintiffs, identified themselves as police officers, and discussed the underlying misdemeanor traffic offense, rather than creeping in the bushes and yelling expletives.

Cara Wright

Cara M. Wright