Cops ABUSE Walmart Shopper in front of his Crying Toddler

Brand-new police body-cam footage shows an outrageous detainment and arrest of an innocent guy shopping in Walmart with his poor toddler. I break it down, explain some of the relevant law, and show what happened. This couldn’t have gone much worse. Multiple Fourth Amendment violations….. and then there’s Walmart.

Reasonable suspicion is required to perform an investigative detention. Probable cause is required to perform a warrantless arrest. The “Graham Factors” are assessed to analyze the legality of the use of force which occurred. I’d guess the police here will fail miserably on all three.

The tale of two videos: two police excessive force incidents caught on the same camera

I had two separate federal civil rights lawsuits where excessive force incidents were captured on video by the exact same camera. One of them resulted in an epic legal drama, which established law still used today. In fact, this case is now discussed in two different law school text books on civil rights law. It was an amazing journey, and I spent several years in Parkersburg, West Virginia litigating these cases.

The first video was the “Sawyer” case. Here was my quote from the front page of the Charleston Gazette newspaper, back when the appellate decision was issued:

“Today the citizens of West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia North Carolina and South Carolina have more constitutional protections than they did yesterday,” John Bryan, Sawyer’s attorney, wrote in a statement.

“As a result of today’s ruling, which affirmed the District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, law enforcement officers will be taught to treat people differently, and that if they fail to do so, there will be consequences. Because of Brian Sawyer, and the federal court system, millions of people have more freedom. And that is something I am very proud of.”

Ruling Against Wood Deputy in Assault Stands

Here is the order issued by the Southern District of West Virginia, throwing out the jury verdict, and finding as a matter of law, that the officer committed excessive force. I still haven’t heard of anything like this happening in any other case:

And here is the Fourth Circuit opinion affirming the order. Despite being labeled “unpublished,” as per the court rules, this opinion has now made its way into two different law school text books on civil rights law:

That time my client was shot through his front door

Here’s the original dash cam footage and audio from a case I handled a few years back that’s educational in several respects. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this footage, in my mind, is towards the end of the video, where you hear a state trooper come up to the deputy sheriff who had shot my client, and inform him that he was going to be the officer investigating the shooting, and basically told him to stop talking, and to go home and sleep on it first. Indeed, once he did so, the narrative changed from what can be heard in the video.

You hear the shooter tell his version of what had occurred three times at the scene. None of which suggested that the shooting was justified. Not surprisingly, the official written statement which comes out a few days later, is nothing like what he said three times at the scene. Instead, the shooter later claimed to have seen my client with a gun before he fired.

Here are the rounds which traveled through the door.

Also, you can see the boot print from where he kicked the door:

Since this was a police shooting of someone who was not yet in police custody, the legality of the use of force is judged using the Fourth Amendment, under the “Graham Factors.” Here are the actual jury instructions which were to be used at the jury trial:

Your verdict must be for the plaintiff (and against the defendant) for violation of the plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force if all the following elements have been proved:

First, the defendant shot the plaintiff through the front door of his home, and

Second, the force used was excessive because it was not reasonably necessary to shoot the plaintiff through his front door in order to interview the plaintiff, and

Third, the defendant was acting under color of state law.

In determining whether the force was “excessive,” you must consider: the need for the application of force; the relationship between the need and the amount of force that was used; the extent of the injury inflicted; and whether a reasonable officer on the scene, without the benefit of hindsight, would have used that much force under similar circumstances.  You should keep in mind that the decision about how much force to use often must be made in circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly changing. 

Deadly force may be used only if it is reasonably believed necessary to prevent a significant threat of death or serious physical harm to the officer or others.  A warning must be given, if possible, before deadly force may be used.  You must decide whether the officer’s actions were reasonable in light of the facts and circumstances confronting the officer without regard to the officer’s own state of mind, intention or motivation.  In making this determination, you may take into account the severity of the crime at issue, whether the plaintiff posed an immediate threat to the safety of the defendant or others, and whether the plaintiff actively resisted arrest or attempted to evade arrest by flight.

If any of the above elements has not been proved, then your verdict must be for the defendant. “Deadly force” is force intended or reasonably likely to cause death or serious physical injury.

This is essentially the same test which is used in criminal prosecutions of police officers for excessive force violations – i.e., Breonna Taylor, and so on. There never was a criminal charge against this particular officer. The West Virginia State Police performed the official investigation and found that the shooting was justified. Thus, our lawsuit was the only litigation connected to it. Ultimately, we settled the case – only days before trial.

Federal Civil Rights Lawsuit Filed in the Dog-Crawl-Head-Smash Video Case

Yesterday afternoon we filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the police officers involved in the viral video showing police (without a warrant) forcing my client, James Walkup, to crawl to his own front door, only to have his head smashed with a boot on his front porch. If you haven’t seen the video, here it is:

This happened in the Western end of Greenbrier County, West Virginia. And here’s the filed lawsuit, now pending in the Beckley Division of the Southern District of West Virginia. We made claims for unlawful search and seizure, as well as use of excessive force. The defendants are one Rainelle, WV police officer and two West Virginia State Troopers.

Video update Part 2, providing more background and evidence in the case, and summarizing the lawsuit:

Here’s the damage to Mr. Walkup’s head:

Here’s the Rainelle Police Department officer who smashed Mr. Walkup’s head:

Here’s the West Virginia State Trooper who grabbed the phone and turned it off, and who we allege attempted to delete the video footage (which was retrieved in the trash of the phone’s “cloud”):

THAT MOMENT YOU REALIZE YOUR BUDDY’S BOOT STOMP WAS CAUGHT ON CAMERA……

When you can sue the police for using excessive force – FIS No. 20

The Civil Rights Lawyer explains how and when a citizen can sue the police for excessive force under federal civil rights law. It seems that everyone has an opinion on police use of force in recent months. In this video, I’ll explain the law of excessive force, which dictates when a justified use of force becomes an unlawful use of force and a federal civil rights violation. This has been my primary practice area the past decade or so, so I’ll point out some of the practical lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Streamed LIVE today at noon (well 12:05).

Video showing Rainelle PD and WVSP performing a warrantless search and seizure inside a home and using excessive force

This is a video about an encounter at the home of my client, Matt, in March of 2019, which occurred in Charmco, West Virginia, which is in Greenbrier County. It shows police arriving at his home to arrest a friend who was visiting him, who happened to have an outstanding warrant.

Matt didn’t want to be involved one way or the other. He was afraid, so he turned on his phone and began recording and he laid down. He didn’t want to get shot. But they forced him to crawl to the door on his hands and knees. When he got there, he got head-stomped by the first officer.

They didn’t know he was recording. The second officer, a West Virginia State Police trooper, noticed the phone filming, and he covered it with his hands, and turned the phone off. The officers then deleted the video footage. But it was recovered.

Rittenhouse Shootings Analyzed

The Rittenhouse shootings were the next logical step of violent riots, combined with government leaders who allow them to occur. What happens when the right to riot collides with the natural rights or life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Or more specifically, the right to life, i.e., the right to self defense? It may be a new normal in 2020, but we build courthouses for a reason: to sort out the facts, and apply the law. The difficult part is to ensure a fair trial without the media poisoning the potential jury pool with misinformation, and misnomers, such as “armed vigilante,” “assault rifle,” “peaceful protestors,” and so on, and to let the true facts fall where they may. In the end, our Founders demanded, and ensured, that we have the right to a jury of our peers for a very good reason. That’s the only thing standing in between an individual in this position, and a lifetime of being locked away in a cage.

The facts can be sorted out. There are multiple videos of the incident. There will be many pictures and screenshots, and slow motion, or frame by frame versions of the incidents. Easier to determine is, what sort of laws will be applied here?

Possession of Firearms in Wisconsin and Illinois:

Wisconsin firearms law provides for open carry of loaded rifles and pistols for those 18 and older not otherwise prohibited from possessing firearms.  Unless Rittenhouse’s age has been incorrectly reported he would be in violation of these statutes. Similar statutes exist in Illinois.
Further, in Wisconsin and Illinois, providing an underaged individual with a firearm is a felony. It seems safe to assume that Rittenhouse’s enthusiasm for firearms was supported at least in some measure by his legal guardians. If they knowingly lent him use of the AR he carried in Kenosha they may face charges under these statutes.

Transportation of Firearms between Wisconsin and Illinois:

Federal law pre-empts the prosecution of illegal transportation via 18 U.S.C. §?926A which provides:

“Notwithstanding any other provision of any law or any rule or regulation of a State or any political subdivision thereof, any person who is not otherwise prohibited by this chapter from transporting, shipping, or receiving a firearm shall be entitled to transport a firearm for any lawful purpose from any place where he may lawfully possess and carry such firearm to any other place where he may lawfully possess and carry such firearm if, during such transportation the firearm is unloaded, and neither the firearm nor any ammunition being transported is readily accessible or is directly accessible from the passenger compartment of such transporting vehicle: Provided, That in the case of a vehicle without a compartment separate from the driver’s compartment the firearm or ammunition shall be contained in a locked container other than the glove compartment or console.”


Any number of state statutes in Wisconsin or Illinois may govern the illegal importation or exportation of firearms where the “peaceable journey” exemption of 18 U.S.C. § 926A does not preempt. Rittenhouse is in jeopardy here if his age is reported correctly as he is not legally able to possess the AR platform he possessed in Kenosha in either Wisconsin or Illinois.

Self Defense:

In general, and Wisconsin is no exception, a “self-defence” defence to homicide (i.e. “justifiable homicide” or “excusable homicide”) or the use of deadly or potentially force requires several elements. Those claiming self defence must:

1. Have the reasonable belief that…
2. …they or another person…
3. …are in imminent…
4. …danger of death or great bodily harm, and…
5. …that the use of deadly force is necessary to prevent said harm.

Key elements of the defence to hone in on are:


Reasonability. Would a reasonable person fear for your life under the circumstances presented?


Imminent. Is the threatened death or great bodily harm about to occur that moment, or at some other time? It has to be literally about to occur.

Wisconsin incorporates these elements in its excusable homicide statute thus:


“A person is privileged to threaten or intentionally use force against another for the purpose of preventing or terminating what the person reasonably believes to be an unlawful interference with his or her person by such other person. The actor may intentionally use only such force or threat thereof as the actor reasonably believes is necessary to prevent or terminate the interference. The actor may not intentionally use force which is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm unless the actor reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself.” (Wisconsin Updated Statutes 2019 § 939.48(1))


Further, many jurisdictions do not permit defendants to use self-defense as an argument if deadly force was used in a confrontation the defendant him or herself precipitated. Wisconsin is one such jurisdiction, terming the restriction “Provocation” providing:


A person who engages in unlawful conduct of a type likely to provoke others to attack him or her and thereby does provoke an attack is not entitled to claim the privilege of self-defence against such attack, except when the attack which ensues is of a type causing the person engaging in the unlawful conduct to reasonably believe that he or she is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm. In such a case, the person engaging in the unlawful conduct is privileged to act in self-defence, but the person is not privileged to resort to the use of force intended or likely to cause death to the person’s assailant unless the person reasonably believes he or she has exhausted every other reasonable means to escape from or otherwise avoid death or great bodily harm at the hands of his or her assailant.

The privilege lost by provocation may be regained if the actor in good faith withdraws from the fight and gives adequate notice thereof to his or her assailant.

A person who provokes an attack, whether by lawful or unlawful conduct, with intent to use such an attack as an excuse to cause death or great bodily harm to his or her assailant is not entitled to claim the privilege of self-defence.” (Wisconsin Updated Statutes 2019 § 939.48(2))

Use of Deadly Force By Rittenhouse

Was there a reasonable belief of imminent death or great bodily harm?

Did Rittenhouse provoke the aggressors? In both episodes, Rittenhouse appears to be attempting to retreat. In the first, he is shown on video being chased, and having something thrown at him. In the second episode, they are clearly chasing him, and attacking him. One attacker had a skateboard, and another had a pistol. Moreover, he appears to be using every effort at escaping, i.e., exhausting his reasonable means to escape, in the second episode.

What about the illegal possession of a firearm? That remains to be seen. Self-defense should still apply, whether or not it utilizes an illegally possessed firearm, which is not a requirement of the basic self-defense analysis. Then again, I’m not a Wisconsin lawyer, so…….

BJJ and Police Use of Force – Freedom is Scary Livecast No. 3

In “Freedom is Scary” LIVE No. 3, I discuss Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (“BJJ”) with former law enforcement officer and BJJ academy owner/coach, Adam Martin.

Why? Because ever since the death of George Floyd, “chokehold” has been the word of the day. Trump brought them up in his June 16, 2020 Executive Order, and now many states have issued orders, or enacted legislation, banning the use of so-called “chokeholds” by police officers.

The problem is, that the term doesn’t mean what they think it means, and in doing so, they’re changing the rules of self defense for police officers. As with other civil rights, if you allow it to be done to one group of people, it always grows like a virus to include groups of people who were not intended to be affected. In this video we discuss what that means.

On June 16, 2020, President Donald Trump (R) issued an executive order, titled Executive Order on Safe Policing for Safe Communities, addressing changes to policing on June 16, 2020.The order directed the U.S. Department of Justice to create an independent credentialing body that would develop a set of criteria for state and local law enforcement agencies to meet in order to be awarded federal grants. The order stated that the criteria should address excessive use of force, include de-escalation training, and ban the use of chokeholds, except when the use of deadly force is lawful.

The chokehold provisions of Trump’s E.O.:

(i)   the State or local law enforcement agency’s use-of-force policies adhere to all applicable Federal, State, and local laws; and

(ii)  the State or local law enforcement agency’s use-of-force policies prohibit the use of chokeholds — a physical maneuver that restricts an individual’s ability to breathe for the purposes of incapacitation — except in those situations where the use of deadly force is allowed by law.

Just what in the hell does that mean anyways…..

Many states have followed suit, banning “chokeholds.” Most notably, I’ll point out that Connecticut actually got the terminology correct, successfully banning pretty much every good submission you’ll see on the UFC.

On July 31, 2020, Governor Ned Lamont (D-Conn.) signed a policing policy bill into law. Under HB 6004, the following was enacted, according to the governor’s office:

On June 15, 2020, Lamont signed an executive order to change law enforcement strategies. The order banned “the Connecticut State Police from using chokeholds, strangleholds, arm-bar control holds, lateral vascular neck restraints, carotid restraints, chest compressions, or any other tactics that restrict oxygen or blood flow to the head or neck,” according to a press release from the governor’s office.

You’ll have to watch the discussion to see what Adam has to say about this policy, but it has something to do with not being a state trooper in Connecticut…..

Update: Podcast version: https://thejohnbryanpodcast.podbean.com/e/freedom-is-scary-no-3-bjj-training-and-police-use-of-force/

What is Qualified Immunity and why does it fail at life?

Section 1983 lawsuits allow private citizens to sue individual government officials, including police officers, for violations of federal rights performed under color of law.

If a government officer violates a federally protected civil right, the citizen has the legal right to file a civil lawsuit against the officer. 42 USC 1983, passed in 1871, allows citizens to sue state and local government officials – especially police officers – for damages when their rights are violated. Even if they’ve suffered no monetary damages, if they are successful, they’re entitled to an award of reasonable attorney fees and expenses. The same sort of lawsuit is available against federal officials pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court case, Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (1971). Those are known as “Bivens actions.” But before these lawsuits can be successful, they have to get past the obstacle of the Qualified Immunity defense.

Qualified Immunity is a defense to civil lawsuits alleging the violation of federal rights while acting under color of law. It does not apply as a defense to criminal prosecution.

Qualified Immunity is a civil defense to these lawsuits, provided to government officials by the Supreme Court initially in the case of Pierson v. Ray in 1967, and then again, in its current form, in Harlow v. Fitzgerald, in 1982. It was rearranged yet again in Pearson v. Callahan (2009) giving federal judges more discretion in granting qualified immunity.

Qualified Immunity has been the subject of intense debate in recent years, and especially in recent months. Many commentators have criticized it as an example of the Court creating legislation from the bench, and in so doing having created a significant problem for citizens seeking to hold their government officials accountable for the violations of their civil rights.

As Ninth Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt has written, the Supreme Court’s recent qualified immunity decisions have “created such powerful shields for law enforcement that people whose rights are violated, even in egregious ways, often lack any means of enforcing those rights.” Three of the foremost experts on Section 1983 litigation—Karen Blum, Erwin Chemerinsky, and Martin Schwartz—have concluded that recent developments in qualified immunity doctrine leave “not much Hopeless for plaintiffs.” 

Although the concept of qualified immunity was drawn from defenses existing in the common law at the time 42 U.S.C. § 1983 was enacted, the Court has made clear that the contours of qualified immunity’s protections are shaped not by the common law but instead by policy considerations. In particular, the Court seeks to balance “two important interests—the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.” 

The Supreme Court’s original rationale for qualified immunity was to shield officials from financial liability. The Court first announced that law enforcement officials were entitled to a qualified immunity from suits in the 1967 case of Pierson v. Ray. That decision justified qualified immunity as a means of protecting government defendants from financial burdens when acting in good faith in legally murky areas. Qualified immunity was necessary, according to the Court, because “[a] policeman’s lot is not so unhappy that he must choose between being charged with dereliction of duty if he does not arrest when he had probable cause, and being mulcted in damages if he does.”

How Qualified Immunity Fails, by Joanna C. Schwartz, Yale Law Journal, 127:2 (2017).

The reality of Qualified Immunity, through my eyes, which are the eyes of someone who litigates civil rights lawsuits mostly as a plaintiff, is that it’s more of an annoyance in the usual case litigated by an experienced civil rights attorney, but that it’s often a problem in those unique cases where justice really should be served, but isn’t. The big problem, in my opinion, is the use of an objective standard. Common sense tells us that bad faith conduct by law enforcement should be punished. But the subjective bad faith, or malicious intentions, of a defendant police officer, surprisingly may not even be admissible in court. Because it’s usually irrelevant under the standard.

Qualified Immunity is analyzed using an objective standard, rather than subjective.

At its inception in 1967, there was a subjective component to the qualified immunity analysis. From 1967, when qualified immunity was first announced by the Supreme Court, until 1982 when Harlow was decided, a defendant seeking qualified immunity had to show both that his conduct was objectively reasonable and that he had a “good-faith” belief that his conduct was proper. In 1982, the Court in Harlow dropped the second part, the subjective good faith belief requirement, finding that such a requirement was “incompatible” with the policy goals of qualified immunity, which now not only was to protect law enforcement officers from financial liability, but also now to avoid subjecting them to either the costs and burdens of trial, as well as the burdens of broad-reaching discovery.

Qualified Immunity cannot be justified as a means of reducing civil litigation surrounding allegations of police misconduct.

In a recent study discussed in a Yale Law Journal article, out of a study of 1,183 lawsuits against state and local law enforcement defendants, over a period of two years, in five federal district courts, it was found that qualified immunity was only raised as a defense in 37% of the cases, and out of those, only resulted in dismissal in 3.6% of the casesSee How Qualified Immunity Fails, by Joanna C. Schwartz, Yale Law Journal, 127:2 (2017).

I’ll repeat that: out of 1,183 lawsuits against police officers for civil rights violations, Qualified Immunity was raised as a defense by the officers in only 37% of the cases, and out of those, only 3.6% resulted in dismissals.

Another study by Alexander Reinert, looking at Bivens actions (against federal officials), found that grants of qualified immunity led to just 2% of case dismissals over a three year study period. However, the big difference in those cases from regular Section 1983 cases, is that the defense attorneys are Assistant United States Attorneys – members of the civil branch of each federal district’s federal prosecutor’s office. As such, they may take a different route of defense, as a matter of DOJ policy. So they are somewhat different creatures, though both involve issues of Qualified Immunity.

Therefore, according to the numbers, “Qualified Immunity” itself is rarely the formal reason that civil rights lawsuits against law enforcement end. Moreover, there are certain types of cases where qualified immunity cannot be utilized, such as those against the employers of law enforcement officers (Monell Claims). Out of the 1,183 cases studied, 8.4% fell into this category. 

The Yale study also showed that most of the qualified immunity litigation is taking place at the summary judgment stage, or even the trial stage, rather than at the motion to dismiss stage, as the Supreme Court apparently intended. That means that litigation is not being avoided. It is perhaps being increased. 

As Alan Chen has observed, when considering the deficiencies of qualified immunity, “the costs eliminated by resolving the case prior to trial must be compared to the costs of trying the case . . . . [T]he pretrial litigation costs caused by the invoking of the immunity defense may cancel out the trial costs saved by that defense.”

How Qualified Immunity Fails, by Joanna C. Schwartz, Yale Law Journal, 127:2 (2017).

Moreover, Qualified Immunity likely increases the expense, as well as the delays, associated with federal civil rights litigation.

Although qualified immunity terminated only 3.9% of the 979 cases in my dataset in which qualified immunity could be raised, the defense was in fact raised by defendants in more than 37% of these cases—and was sometimes raised multiple times, at the motion to dismiss stage, at summary judgment, and through interlocutory appeals. Each time qualified immunity is raised, it must be researched, briefed, and argued by the parties and decided by the judge. And litigating qualified immunity is no small feat. John Je ries describes qualified immunity doctrine as “a mare’s nest of complexity and confusion.”155 Lower courts are “hopelessly conflicted both within and among themselves” as a result. One circuit court judge reported that “[w]ading through the doctrine of qualified immunity is one of the most morally and conceptually challenging tasks federal appellate court judges routinely face.”

How Qualified Immunity Fails, by Joanna C. Schwartz, Yale Law Journal, 127:2 (2017).

Qualified Immunity cannot be justified as a means of protecting police officers from personal financial liability.

In the study of 1,183 civil lawsuits, police officer defendants paid little, to none, of settlement or verdict amounts. Out of the 44 largest law enforcement agencies included in the study, which included 70 agencies overall, the individual officers paid just 0.02% of the dollars awarded to the plaintiffs in those suits. In the 37 smaller and midsize law enforcement agencies, no individual officer contributed any amount to any award to a plaintiff during this period. All of the officers were indemnified by the employers, even where they were fired, disciplined, or even criminally prosecuted for their conduct. This has been my experience as well, except in one particular case I’ve personally been involved with. I only know of one other instance in West Virginia where there was a second occurrence.

Qualified Immunity cannot be justified as a means of protecting police officers and government officials from the non-financial burdens of discovery and trial.

Often discussed in Qualified Immunity caselaw is this phrase, and so-called policy objective, of shielding government officials from the burdens of participating in a lawsuit, including the discovery process and the trial itself. For this reason, courts have the discretion to apply Qualified Immunity early in the litigation, including at the motion to dismiss stage, prior to any discovery being conducted. However, the study shows that this policy goal is not being met.

I found that, contrary to judicial and scholarly assumptions, qualified immunity is rarely the formal reason that civil rights damages actions against law enforcement end. Qualified immunity is raised infrequently before discovery begins: across the districts in my study, defendants raised qualified immunity in motions to dismiss in 13.9% of the cases in which they could raise the defense. 

These motions were less frequently granted than one might expect: courts granted motions to dismiss in whole or part on qualified immunity grounds 13.6% of the time.Qualified immunity was raised more often by defendants at summary judgment and was more often granted by courts at that stage. But even when courts granted motions to dismiss and summary judgment motions on qualified immunity grounds, those grants did not always result in the dismissal of the cases—additional claims or defendants regularly remained and continued to expose government officials to the possibility of discovery and trial. Across the five districts in my study, just 3.9% of the cases in which qualified immunity could be raised were dismissed on qualified immunity grounds.

And when one considers all the Section 1983 cases brought against law enforcement defendants—each of which could expose law enforcement officials to whatever burdens are associated with discovery and trial—just 0.6% of cases were dismissed at the motion to dismiss stage and 2.6% were dismissed at summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds.

How Qualified Immunity Fails, by Joanna C. Schwartz, Yale Law Journal, 127:2 (2017).

Thus, Qualified Immunity was the reason for dismissal in only 3.2% of the 1,183 lawsuits in the study. The defendants raised the defense in 37.6% of the cases where the defense was available. Out of these, only 13.9% of these were raised at the earliest point available – that is, the motion to dismiss stage – that being the only method of avoiding the burden of participating in the discovery process. Courts granted less than 18% of those motions raised at the motion to dismiss stage, which includes motions granted “in part,” which means that only some claims were dismissed, and that others were allowed to proceed. 

Therefore, the existence of Qualified Immunity is not serving the alleged policy goal of shielding government officials from the burden of participating in the litigation process. Unless, of course, one considers 3.2% to be a substantial shield from litigation. To the contrary, it arguably has increased the negative public perception of a lack of equal justice in the justice system as a whole.

How to strip a police officer of Qualified Immunity

To strip a police officer of qualified immunity in a civil rights lawsuit, a plaintiff must establish that:

1. the officer’s conduct violated a federal statute or constitutional right; and

2. the right was clearly established at the time of the conduct, such that

3. an objectively reasonable officer would have understood that the conduct

violated that right.

Which comes first? Until recently, the United States Court of Appeals required a court to first determine whether or not a constitutional right had been violated and then determine whether an officer was entitled to qualified immunity. See Saucier v. Katz, 121 S.Ct. 2151 (2001). Courts and attorneys were routinely ignoring this mandate and somewhat recently, the United States Supreme Court in Pearson v. Callahan (2009) reverted back to its initial analysis and now courts are free to evaluate these issues in whatever order the court desires. 

The real world application of Qualified Immunity.

1. There generally tends to be a “grace period “between a change in the law, and then moment it becomes “clearly established” for qualified immunity purposes.

2. Qualified Immunity is generally a poor defense to claims of excessive use of force by a police officer. The reason for this is because this often involves highly contested disputes of fact which make a trial likely. For example, a plaintiff alleges an officer kicked him in the groin while he was handcuffed. The officer responds that the plaintiff is lying, and that he did no such thing. This is most certainly going to require a trial to decide the truth of the matter. It doesn’t really involve a legal analysis of whether a police officer would know it would be a civil rights violation to kick a handcuffed detainee in the groin for no good reason. The primary exception to the excessive force rule is police shooting cases where the plaintiff is dead. Such a case usually involves family members of the decased filing suit. As such, the plaintiff himself/herself cannot tell his/her side of the story. With only one side available in many such cases, the court may grant qualified immunity based on the officers’ un-contradicted affidavits or deposition testimony.

3. Qualified Immunity is a very effective defense when dealing with search and seizure issues, which are rapidly developing and changing (due to commonly being involved in criminal litigation, which occurs in much greater volume and frequency). This creates so-called “grey areas” of the law, for which courts tend to give police officers the benefit of the doubt, so to speak.

4. An officer’s mistaken understanding of the law, or a reasonable misapprehension of the propriety of his conduct, can still provide a defense under Qualified Immunity. See Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 205 (2001) (“The concern of the immunity inquiry is to acknowledge that reasonable mistakes can be made as to the legal constraints on particular police conduct. It is sometimes difficult for an officer to determine how the relevant legal doctrine, here excessive force, will apply to the factual situation the officer confronts. An officer might correctly perceive all of the relevant facts but have a mistaken understanding as to whether a particular amount of force is legal in those circumstances. If the officer’s mistake as to what the law requires is reasonable, however, the officer is entitled to the immunity defense.”).

5. Qualified immunity applies as an effective defense in wrongful arrest cases, where the Court looks at the facts in the record and determines that probable cause exists, or that the officer made a reasonable mistake as to the existence of probable cause.

Therefore, ironically, Qualified Immunity is not much of a bar to a plaintiff seeking to hold a police officer responsible for the use of excessive force, such as in the recent death of George Floyd. Without a doubt, no court in the land would grant Qualified Immunity to the officer involved in Mr. Floyd’s death. There would be, or probably will be, factual issues to be determined at trial. Rather, it mostly is going to apply to those “grey areas” of search and seizure law. Moreover, it’s going to apply usually without regard to the officer’s subjective ignorance, or expertise, regarding the law. It’s an objective, fairly low standard.

For this reason, I agree with the author of the Yale Law Review study, in that rather than calling for the end of Qualified Immunity, it might be best to return to a subjective standard version of Qualified Immunity, where police officers who act in bad faith, as well as those who act in good faith, though objectively unreasonably, can be held accountable. But as for Qualified Immunity itself, whether it exists, or does not exist, it’s not going to apply to any of the officers directly involved in Mr. Floyd’s death. But it will be involved in many other cases, including cases where there certainly was police misconduct, for which the victim will be barred from recovery. That can’t be a good policy, in my opinion.