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Supreme Court Reverses Qualified Immunity Dismissal of Texas Prisoner’s Excessive Force Claim

by Douglas Ankney

In December 2016, Prince McCoy Jr. was confined in a segregation cell at the Darrington Unit in Rosharon, Texas. The prisoner in the cell adjacent to McCoy’s threw water on Officer Tajudeen Alamu. Alamu left and the prisoner covered the front of his cell with bedding. Alamu returned with pepper spray. Frustrated that he could not spray the prisoner who had thrown the water, Alamu sprayed McCoy.

McCoy filed suit in federal district court in 2017, alleging excessive force in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The district court relied on Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 112 S. Ct. 995 (1992) and ruled in Alamu’s favor. The district court determined that McCoy had failed to show that Alamu’s assault was excessive or malicious and that McCoy’s injuries were minor.

McCoy appealed. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found that Alamu had indeed violated McCoy’s Eighth Amendment rights but ruled in Alamu’s favor on qualified immunity grounds. In a nutshell, the Court determined that because there wasn’t any circuit precedent with similar material facts to inform correctional officers that spraying prisoners with pepper spray without provocation or justification violated the Eighth Amendment, it was not “established” that a reasonable officer such as Alamu would know his or her conduct violated the prisoner’s rights. See: McCoy v. Alamu, 950 F.3d 226 (5th Cir. 2020).

McCoy petitioned for certiorari to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). McCoy explained that there was precedent within the circuit that clearly demonstrates punching a prisoner in the face without justification and tasing a prisoner without justification violate the Eighth Amendment. McCoy argued “there is no requirement that a constitutional violation be weapon-specific” and “defining Eighth Amendment violations weapon-by-weapon and granting qualified immunity to defendants using novel weaponry would also break from the other circuits that have considered the question.”

On February 21, 2021, SCOTUS reversed and remanded to the Fifth Circuit for further consideration in light of SCOTUS’s recent decision in Taylor v. Riojas, 141 S. Ct. 52 (2020) [See PLN, Jul. 2021, p. 32]. In that case, also originating in the Fifth Circuit, the appellate court had determined that officers who had locked a naked prisoner in two cells for two days—one cell covered with “massive amounts” of human feces and the other filled with raw sewage—were entitled to qualified immunity because there wasn’t any circuit precedent with similar facts. SCOTUS reasoned that “no reasonable officer” would have believed placing a prisoner in such squalid conditions was constitutional and a precedent with similar material facts was unnecessary. See: McCoy v. Alamu, 141 S.Ct. 1364 (2021).

The defense of qualified immunity is a doctrine invented from whole cloth by the Supreme Court and it shields government actors from liability for their unconstitutional conduct. To defeat the defense, a plaintiff has to show the defendant violated a constitutional right and that the right was “clearly established” at the time of the alleged violation. Lower courts have repeatedly held that to show the right was clearly established there must be circuit precedent defining the right and materially similar facts to show that the alleged conduct violated that right. The supreme court has continually tweaked the standard every few years for decades making it harder for constitutional rights to become “established”. In real life, this has lead to rights but no remedies, at least not for money damages which is usually the only remedy for people who have been killed, raped, or otherwise mistreated by the government.

This unreasonable application has led to many egregious and unjust decisions. For example, in a 2019 case from the Ninth Circuit police officers stole $225,000 while executing a search warrant. Because there was no circuit precedent holding that theft during execution of a search warrant violated the suspect’s constitutional rights, the Ninth Circuit determined the officers were shielded from liability because of qualified immunity. Jessop v. City of Fresno, 936 F. 3d 937 (9th Cir. 2019).

In another case, an officer who shot a ten-year-old boy while attempting to shoot an aggressive dog was immune from suit because of a lack of precedent with similar facts.

Many advocates and organizations, including the Human Rights Defense Center, have repeatedly called on both Congress and the SCOTUS to eliminate the doctrine of qualified immunity in order to ensure accountability by government officials. To date, this has not been successful. 


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