July 27, 2020
U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Case On Police Brutality This Fall
When headlines weren’t covering COVID-19, you could expect to find a national story about police brutality. From the killing of George Floyd, to the injustices of Breonna Taylor’s case, Americans have made their voices heard that justice must be served for those innocent lives lost.
But where does the Supreme Court stand on these issues? Are police officers immune to the law? The Supreme Court will weigh in as they hear a case on police brutality this fall.
The Courts and Excessive Force
The case the court will hear this fall surrounds a simple misunderstanding that could have quickly become deadly.
In summer 2014, Roxanne Torres was sitting in her car in her Albuquerque housing complex parking lot. Two officers were there to serve an arrest warrant. Torres was not who they were looking for, but in failing to identify themselves, the officers approached the car. Torres believed they were trying to hijack her vehicle, so she drove away.
The officers shot at her 13 times. She was hit twice but escaped. Why was such excessive force used? While the courts have been trying to negate the question, this October when Torres v. Madrid is heard, they’ll have no choice but to come to a resolution.
Torres originally sued the officers who shot at her, saying the use of excessive force was a violation of her Fourth Amendment rights. Often, excessive force is considered a police seizure. If Torres had been successfully stopped by police, there would be no question about her ability to sue. But because of qualified immunity for police, she has not been given the chance.
What is Qualified Immunity?
According to LawFare, “Qualified immunity is a judicially created doctrine that shields government officials from being held personally liable for constitutional violations—like the right to be free from the excessive police force—for money damages under federal law so long as the officials did not violate ‘clearly established’ law.”
Though qualified immunity has been in practice since the 19th century, what we know as modern qualified immunity was established in the Supreme Court ruling of Harlow v. Fitzgerald (1982).
Instead of following the “subjective good faith” of an officer who committed the violation, under the Harlow ruling, the court will use an “objective terms” test to see if qualified immunity can be overruled. This occurs by showing the defendant’s conduct “violate[d] clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”
Though it was designed to still protect law enforcement, the hope was to also stop lawless action. Unfortunately, it has just strengthened the protection law enforcement receives.
In the ruling Pearson v. Callahan (2009), the Supreme Court altered the way the test could be used, yet still, in 2020, the argument against qualified immunity remains as the excessive force continues to be an issue.
We think of police brutality as a big city issue–but it’s an issue for every American, in every city.
Police Brutality in Pennsylvania: Mazzoni Karam Petorak & Valvano
If you were the victim of police misconduct or brutality during the course of an arrest or any other circumstance, contact the Scranton criminal defense attorneys of Mazzoni Karam Petorak & Valvano today. We will fight for your rights.