Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.
To have a case before the United States Supreme Court is quite an honor for most lawyers, and Michael Mosley is no exception. On March 4th, Arkansas Municipal League Attorney Michael Mosley will argue a case that he has been working on for almost a decade before the nine Justices. In the case, Plumhoff v. Rickard, the Supreme Court will decide whether police officers are entitled to qualified immunity for the use of deadly force in a high speed chase. The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief, which NLC joined.
A quick refresher on qualified immunity: state and local government officials can be sued for financial damages in their individual capacity if they violate a person’s constitutional rights. Qualified immunity protects government officials from such lawsuits where the law they violated isn’t “clearly established.” Qualified immunity is intended to protect “all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.”
In July 2004, police officers shot and killed Donald Rickard and his passenger after Rickard led police on a high-speed chase. Their families sought money damages claiming the officers violated the Fourth Amendment by using excessive force. The officers argued they should be granted qualified immunity because their use of force wasn’t prohibited by clearly established law.
The Supreme Court will decide whether the Sixth Circuit properly denied qualified immunity by distinguishing this case, which arose in 2004, from a 2007 Supreme Court decision. The Court also will decide whether qualified immunity should be denied based on the facts of this case. Rickard wove through traffic on an interstate connecting two states, collided with police vehicles twice and used his vehicle to escape after being surrounded by police officers, nearly hitting at least one officer.
Mosley, who is representing the police officers, expressed hope that “the Supreme Court will rule that my clients’ conduct was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”
The SLLC’s brief argues that the Supreme Court should rule as follows: officers retain qualified immunity from Fourth Amendment force claims so long as it is arguable, on the historical facts most favorable to the plaintiff, that the force was reasonable. In evaluating immunity, a court must adopt the inferences that a reasonable officer could arguably draw from the facts, regardless of whether those inferences are factual or legal. It is a legal question whether—based on the historical facts, the inferences an officer could arguably draw from them, and clearly established law—only a plainly incompetent officer could conclude that force was reasonable.
The National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Association of Counties, the International City/County Management Association, the United States Conference of Mayors and the International Municipal Lawyers Association also signed onto the SLLC’s brief.
The Supreme Court will issue an opinion in this case by June 30, 2014.