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Angiulo: Law Enforcement, Qualified Immunity and Use of Force

Monday, November 16, 2015


Members of law enforcement are tasked with a series of a difficult acts and decisions.  Some days they have routine patrols; sometimes they are faced with intense situations.  In some scenarios police will make decisions that effect the health, safety and welfare of those around them, whether they be uninvolved members of the public, suspects or other officers.  Given the high level of authority they have, the decisions that police officers make are also subject to a commensurate level of public and legal scrutiny.

The Supreme Court case of Mullenix v. Luna from November 9, 2015 is an example of an officer faced with a difficult situation. According to the decision some important facts include a person subject to an arrest warrant fled from officers in his car.  The individual was suspected to be under the influence and reached speeds between 85 and 110 miles per hour while driving approximately 25 miles on a Texas interstate with light traffic from other motorists.  In addition, the person called the Tulia Police Department's dispatcher, claimed to have a gun, and threatened to shoot officers if they did not stop pursuing him.

The officers did not stop pursuing him and, instead, implemented a plan to stop the vehicle using spike strips.  At some point, one of the police officers made a decision to use his service rifle and attempt to disable the car by shooting its engine block or radiator.  During that attempt, the officer's shots did not hit their intended target and, instead, resulted in the operator of the fleeing vehicle being struck in the upper body. After hitting the waiting spike strips, the vehicle hit the median and rolled two and half times.  

The estate of the deceased operator filed suit pursuant to 42 USC §1983 alleging that the use of lethal force was excessive and, therefore, violated the Fourth Amendment. The respondents to the lawsuit moved for summary judgment under a claim that the officer had qualified immunity for his actions.  Qualified immunity protects officials from civil liability for actions taken in the course of their duties if certain standards are met. The way the justices state it, qualified immunity protects all “but the plainly incomptent or those who knowingly violate the law.”  With this standard in mind the justices had to decide whether, or not, this doctrine controlled these facts and whether the motion for summary judgment should be allowed.

Remember that the plaintiff in a civil case bears the burden of proof and qualified immunity operates as an affirmative defense.  What this means is that once the defense is raised, the plaintiff must provide evidence as to why qualified immunity should not control.  According to the Supreme Court, the plaintiff could not meet their obligation.

In ruling that the doctrine of qualified immunity controlled, the justices focused on two major points.  First was the threat presented by the subject who was operating at high speeds and threatening to shoot intervening officers.  Second was the reasonableness of the officer's perceptions that the subject was a threat to other motorists and officers if the chase continued.  The court went on to further state that qualified immunity protects actions even if they appear to be in the “hazy border between excessive and acceptable force.”  

Interested parties should also take the time to read the short concurring and dissenting opinions.  The concurrence by Justice Scalia takes a look at whether or not the actions of the officer should be considered a use of deadly force.  He concludes that the officer's actions should not be considered a use of deadly force, in part, because all parties agree that at the time shots were fired the officer only intended to disable the vehicle not harm the operator.  Justice Sotomayor, on the dissent, focuses on the unreasonableness of the officer's use of his service rifle in a manner he was not trained for and was not explicitly authorized by his superior.

Without knowing it, we as residents are asking law enforcement to impose our laws on those that might not wish to operate under the same restrictions.  When they do their job they will not face civil liability for the results unless a significant factual basis justifies it.  

Leonardo Angiulo is an Attorney with the firm of Glickman, Sugarman, Kneeland & Gribouski in Worcester handling legal matters across the Commonwealth. He can be reached by email at [email protected]          


Related Slideshow: 8 Fatal Shootings by Police Officers in MA This Year

Prev Next

January 19, 2015

Victim: Paul Campbell

City/Town: Weymouth

Campbell, a 49-year-old white male, was shot by Weymouth police officers in a confrontation after his mother was found stabbed to death outside her home.


Source: The Washington Post

Prev Next

February 17,2015

Victim: Douglas Sparks

City/Town: Tewksbury

Sparks, a 30-year-old white man with a toy weapon, was shot by Tewksbury Police in a parking lot.. Sparks stabbed two people with a knife at a vocational school and then aimed the toy gun at police officers.

Source: The Washington Post

Prev Next

March 27, 2015

Victim: Neil Seifert

City/Town: Webster

Seifert, a 40-year-old white man, was shot by Webster police after firing a shotgun at police officers. Police were initially investigating a report of domestic disturbance.

Source: The Washington Post

Prev Next

March 27, 2015

Victim: Angelo West

City/Town: Boston

West, a 41-year-old black man, was shot by a Boston police officer after West shot a police officer during a traffic stop.

Source: The Washington Post

Prev Next

June 2, 2015

Victim: Usaamah Rahim

City/Town: Roslindale

Rahim, a 26-year-old black man, was armed with a knife when he was shot by Boston police officers and FBI. Rahim was suspected in a plot to behead a police officer.

Source: The Washington Post

Prev Next

June 19, 2015

Victim: Santos Laboy

City/Town: Boston

Laboy, a 44-year-old Hispanic man armed with a knife, was shot in Boston by a State Police officer. According to the Washington Post, "Boston University police officers approached Laboy because he matched the description of a man sought on warrants. Laboy brandished a knife and fled, encountering a Massachusetts state trooper who shot him when he refused to drop the weapon. Laboy had struggled with mental instability for many years, according to his sister."

Source: The Washington Post

Prev Next

July 2, 2015

Victim: Douglas Buckley

City/Town: Brockton

Buckley, a 45-year-old white man, carrying a toy weapon, was shot by Brockton police after Buckley's wife called them saying that he was threatening to burn down their home. Buckley brandished two BB guns that looked like a handgun and a rifle.

Source: The Washington Post

Prev Next

July 13, 2015

Victim: Rafael Suazo

City/Town: Lynn

Suazo, a 23-year-old Hispanic man, was shot by police when he drove his SUV into a Lynn police officer who was conducting an undercover drug operation.

Source: The Washington Post


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