The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday sidestepped a chance to review the scope of a little-known legal doctrine called qualified immunity that increasingly has been used to shield police accused of excessive force, turning away an appeal by a Cleveland man who sued after being roughed up by police while trying to enter his own home.
The justices declined to hear the appeal by Shase Howse, who said he was slammed to the ground outside the house where he lived with his mother in a poor and mostly Black neighborhood, struck in the back of the neck and jailed after police deemed his actions suspicious. Howse, who was 20 at the time, is Black. The police involved in the 2016 incident are white.
Qualified immunity is a 50-year-old creation of the U.S. Supreme Court protects police officers and other types of government officials from civil litigation in certain circumstances, allowing lawsuits only when an individual’s “clearly established” statutory or constitutional rights have been violated.
Police use of force has been closely scrutinized following the May 2020 death George Floyd, a Black man, after a Minneapolis officer knelt on his neck.
The U.S. House of Representatives last Wednesday passed policing reform legislation, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act (H.R. 1280), that among other provisions would eliminate the qualified immunity defense for law enforcement. The legislation, supported by most Democrats and opposed by Republicans, faces an uphill battle in the Senate.
Howse’s case was featured in a Reuters investigation into qualified immunity published in December. The investigation illustrated how the endorsement of this defense by courts has denied Black Americans recourse to justice under a law crafted by the U.S. Supreme Court half a century ago, qualified immunity was meant to protect officials from costly and frequent litigation.
Howse sued two police officers, Brian Middaugh and Thomas Hodous, accusing them of excessive force in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. The officers said they used only the force necessary to subdue Howse.
The Cincinnati, Ohio-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2020 granted the officers qualified immunity, ruling that no “clearly established” precedent showed that their actions were unlawful.
Law enforcement professionals and political conservatives argue that qualified immunity is essential for police to make quick decisions in dangerous situations without fear of lawsuits.
In recent months, the Supreme Court has signaled a potential softening of its approach to qualified immunity. In two cases the justices allowed inmates to sue prison guards who had been granted immunity by lower courts from accusations that they violated the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
Law enforcement has taken a huge hit in the last year with the “defund the police” movement resulting in a mass exodus of officers from many jurisdictions across the United States.
If the police reform bill heading to the Senate is passed, it is hard to imagine that anyone would pursue law enforcement as a career.
Reuters contributed to this report.
ARTICLE SOURCE: thefederalistpapers.org