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U.S. Supreme Court: Qualified Immunity Determination Must Precede Trial on Merits

U.S. Supreme Court: Qualified Immunity Determination Must Precede Trial On Merits

by John E. Dannenberg

The US Supreme Court held in a suit against a military police (MP) officer for use of excessive force in an arrest, that before analyzing whether such force was per se excessive, a threshold question in a defense raised of the MP's qualified immunity must be first answered as to whether the facts would establish the violation of a constitutional right and, if so, that the constitutional right was clearly established.

Eliot Katz, an animal rights activist protester, attended a public speech by Vice President Al Gore outside Letterman Army Hospital at the San Francisco Presidio Army Base, to protest the use of Letterman for experiments on animals. He secreted a 3 x 4-foot cloth protest banner under his jacket. When Gore began to speak, Katz got up and walked towards the speaker's platform, which was cordoned off by a waist-high fence, and started to unfold his banner.

MPs, who recognized Katz, rushed him from behind, grabbed his banner, and "half-dragged," "half-carried" him and roughly forced him into a military van. He was not injured, but was held briefly at the MP station before being released. He sued MP Donald Saucier in a Bivens action ( Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents , 403 US 388) alleging, inter alia, that Saucier had used excessive force when arresting him.

Saucier asserted a qualified immunity defense. The issue for the Court was whether qualified immunity was a single inquiry entwining both the questions of excessive force and of a constitutional violation, or whether the process should be sequential - first inquiring whether the facts alleged (and presumed in favor of the injured party) showed that the MP's conduct in fact violated a federal constitutional right [with a negative answer ending any further inquiry] and then asking whether that constitutional right was clearly established.

Reconciling the case at bar with Anderson v. Creighton , 483 US 635 (1987), the Court ruled that the two-step process was necessary. Key to its analysis, the Court noted that because qualified immunity is immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability, it is lost if the case is erroneously permitted to go prematurely to trial. The Court further observed that excessive force used in an arrest violates the Fourth Amendment, and must be analyzed on a case-by-case basis.

Applying all of the above, this two-step process would mean that if an officer's mistake as to what the law requires (with respect to force used to make an arrest) were reasonable, the officer would be entitled to qualified immunity. Thus, if the officer acts according to reasonable, but mistaken, beliefs as to his probable cause to arrest, courts will not hold this a Fourth Amendment violation.

Using this analysis, the court reversed the Ninth Circuit US Court of Appeals ruling below "fusing" two tests into one, which had the undesired result of blurring the requisite qualified immunity predetermination with the ultimate trial finding of whether excessive force had been used. Hence, a trial should be precluded upon a finding of qualified immunity, carving the ultimate jury question out of this preliminary determination.

Applying the instant facts under its two-part test, the Court found that the MPs had broken no known rule in acting as they did and thus had not acted unreasonably. Because this ended the inquiry, the Court held that Saucier was entitled to qualified immunity. This ruling applies to prison and jail cases involving excessive force as well as police misconduct cases. See: Saucier v. Katz , 121 S.Ct. 2151 (2001).

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Related legal case

Saucier v. Katz

Order List, 121 S.Ct. 1251, 149 L.Ed.2d 157, 149 L.Ed.2d 157 (U.S. 03/09/2001)

[1] United States Supreme Court

[2] 00-8867

[3] 121 S.Ct. 1251, 149 L.Ed.2d 157, 149 L.Ed.2d 157, 2001, 69 USLW 3616, 69 USLW 3616

[4] March 09, 2001



[7] (ORDER LIST: 532 U.S.)

[8] FRIDAY, MARCH 9, 2001


[10] (0OA782)

[11] The application for stay of execution of sentence of death presented to the Chief Justice and by him referred to the Court is denied. The petition for a writ of certiorari is denied.