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January 17, 2019 by Victor A. AfanadorDownload PDF

Third Circuit reaffirms that qualified immunity is still alive in a police shooting of a motorist who refused to comply with orders.Victor A. Afanador

The tension and debate in America over police practices seem endless these days. But while the American public argues, police officers are still responsible for ensuring the safety of the community at large and their own well-being. Even in situations that result in the death of a suspect prior to arrest, a police officer will be entitled to qualified immunity so long as a plaintiff cannot prove the existence of the violation of a clearly established right. The ultimate injury is inconsequential so long as the officer’s actions were proper under the circumstances. In Martin v. City of Newark, 2018 WL 6828424 (3d Cir. Dec. 28, 2018), the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit highlighted this proposition by affirming the District Court’s grant of summary judgment.

The doctrine of qualified immunity provides government officials with immunity from causing injury when acting under color of law if the plaintiff cannot make out a constitutional violation and cannot establish that the constitutional right was clearly established at the time of the government official’s actions. The Martin court stated that “[a] right is clearly established if precedent places its existence beyond debate,” such that only “the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law” are not shielded by qualified immunity.

In Martin, the court held that a police officer was entitled to qualified immunity from a 42 U.S.C.§ 1983 excessive force action when the motorist, who was shot and eventually died, failed to comply with police directives at the commencement of the motor vehicle stop. The court ruled that there was no violation of a clearly established right and that the police officer acted in an objectively reasonable manner when he used deadly force against the motorist when the motorist attempted to leave the scene after refusing to honor the officer’s commands.

In fact, the court went further by writing that “Wilson [the officer] was faced with an erratic and noncompliant driver who disregarded his explicit warning not to start the car, despite Wilson’s proximity to, and presence (of at least his hands) within, the vehicle. Webb [the motorist] posed a threat to Wilson’s life: being injured by a moving vehicle.” While Wilson’s and Webb’s versions of the facts surrounding the altercation differed extensively, the core facts of non-compliance and the use of force were not in dispute. Those facts were the primary reason why qualified immunity applied in this circumstance.

In addition, the court utilized a 2004 Supreme Court case to state: “On the other hand, guidance from the Supreme Court reveals that officers who shoot suspects “set on avoiding capture through vehicular flight, when persons in the immediate area are at risk from that flight,” do not violate clearly established law. Brosseau v. Haugen, 543 U.S. 194, 200-01 (2004).”

Despite the heated debate on police practices and recent headlines of police abuse, qualified immunity must still apply when police officers are acting in good faith in exercising their job duties and they have acted in an objectively reasonable manner. The ultimate injury should never be the driving force behind liability against a public servant and the public entity that employs him or her. Rather, the crucial analysis should be whether the public servant performs his or her duties in an objectively reasonable manner under the totality of the circumstances, especially when the public servant is a police officer whose own life may be in danger.