When a plaintiff sues a law enforcement officer for a violation of constitutional rights, the officer will almost always raise a defense called qualified immunity.
On March 8, 2019, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit handed down its decision in Moon v. Meachum. In its opinion, the court addressed the qualified immunity defense in the context of a fatal vehicle chase.
Facts of the case
Moon was riding his motorcycle at a high rate of speed. He was observed by Meachum, a Criminal District Attorney Investigator. Meachum gave chase and radioed for help.
Moon drove away so fast that he eluded Meachum. Moon got off the interstate and tried to hide, but he was spotted by another police officer. So, he took off again.
By the time Moon got back on the highway, Meachum was actually ahead of Moon. Meachum saw Moon coming up behind him at what was later determined to be 150 mph.
Meachum began to slow down and implement what was known as a “rolling roadblock.” Unfortunately, Moon’s rate of speed was so high that he struck Meachum’s vehicle in the rear and was killed.
Moon’s family files a Section 1983 claim.
Moon’s survivors filed suit against Meachum under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 for “seizing” Moon in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
Meachum raised a qualified immunity defense. The lower court agreed with Meachum and dismissed the lawsuit. Moon’s survivors appealed.
Elements of the qualified immunity defense
The determination of whether a law enforcement officer (or other government employee, for that matter) is entitled to qualified immunity includes two inquiries.
First, did the officer violate a constitutional right of the injured party?
Second, was that constitutional right “clearly established” at the time of the alleged misconduct by the officer?
The law allows a court to decide one question of both in this case, the Fifth Circuit focused only on the second question.
Was Moon’s right to be free of injury or death under these particular circumstances “clearly established” at the time of his death?
Somewhat uncharacteristically, the Fifth Circuit referred to this question as a “doozy”.
The court began by noting that a Section 1983 plaintiff bears a heavy burden of proof. A constitutional right is “clearly established” only if relevant case law has placed the issue “beyond debate.”
In making such an analysis, the court concluded that there were four applicable Commandments.
1. The court must frame the constitutional question with specificity and granularity.
The court began by noting that it was obviously beyond debate that the Fourth Amendment prohibits certain unreasonable seizures. But, the court said, that was not enough.
The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly told courts “not to define clearly established law that high level of generality.”
Instead, the question is whether the violative nature of the particular conduct at issue is clearly established. That is because qualified immunity should not be denied unless the officer had “fair notice” that his particular conduct was unlawful.
2. Clearly established law come from court holdings, not dicta.
The term “dicta” refers to language in a court opinion that is not essential to the actual holding. It is well-recognized that dicta is not law.
Thus, the Fifth Circuit explained that clearly established law can only be found in actual court holdings.
3. Overcoming qualified immunity is especially difficult in excessive-force cases.
As the court recognized, this is an area of law in which the result very much depends on the facts of each case. Thus, police officers are entitled to qualified immunity unless existing legal precedent “squarely governs the specific facts at issue.”
In addition, excessive-force claims often turn upon split-second decisions to use lethal force. “That means the law must be so clearly established that – in the blink of an eye, in the middle of a high-speed chase – every reasonable officer would know it immediately.”
4. The court must think twice before denying qualified immunity.
Finally, the Fifth Circuit noted how often the United States Supreme Court had reversed lower courts that had denied a police officer qualified immunity.
The court said that it would be “ill advised to misunderstand the message and deny qualified immunity to anyone but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.”
In light of all of this, the Fifth Circuit said that it was not beyond debate that a reasonable officer would know, in only seven seconds and in the midst of a high-speed chase, that Meachum’s rolling block violated the Fourth Amendment.
In the light of all of this, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the decision of the lower court to dismiss the case based upon qualified immunity.
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