Fourth Circuit of Appeals Reverses District Court on Important Immunity Decision

In light of George Floyd killing Americans are taking a long overdue reexamination of violent police tactics and demanding reform.  As it turns out, Courts are also reexamining some of the precedents that give police offices certain immunities or protections from civil liability.

In the Estate of Jones v. City of Martinsburg the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a trial Court’s decision dismissing a section 1983 action against a mentally ill black man who was shot 22 times in the back, while lying on the ground after being assaulted by multiple police officers.  His alleged crime was jaywalking. (See Appendix for full decision).

The district court ruled that the jaywalker’s right to be free from being shot 22 times while laying on the ground was not clearly established at the time of the shooting, thus granting police officers immunity from civil claims.  The 4th Circuit reversed, noting

Although we recognize that our police officers are often asked to make split-second decisions, we expect them to do so with respect for the dignity and worth of black lives. Before the ink dried on this opinion, the FBI opened an investigation into yet another death of a black man at the hands of police, this time George Floyd in Minneapolis. This has to stop. To award qualified immunity at the summary judgment stage in this case would signal absolute immunity for fear-based use of deadly force, which we cannot accept.

This is an important step forward in the limiting of qualified immunity laws that have restricted the ability of victims to hold police accountable for their unlawful conduct.  Qualified immunity was a creation of our courts in the first instance, so it is not up to the Courts to reconsider this doctrine in light of current events.  The time has come to end qualified immunity for police misconduct.