SCOTUS year in review: Decisions on qualified immunity and Fourth Amendment seizures

In 2021 the Supreme Court affirmed long-standing truisms that protect the home and that qualified immunity review is not a shield against unconstitutional conduct


This past October 4 began the court’s 2021 term and the first two opinions issued in the new term focused on qualified immunity. It was a fitting opening because a qualified immunity case, Taylor v. Riojas, was among the initial opinions rendered by the court during its 2020 term (October 5, 2020 – October 3, 2021) and another, Lombardo v. St. Louis, was among its final opinions before the 2021 summer recess. In between these October starts were three Fourth Amendment cases.

The fact that there were several qualified immunity cases before the court over the past 14 months is significant for two reasons. The first is that since taking the helm as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 2005, John Roberts has presided over more cases focusing on qualified immunity than any other Chief Justice in the court’s history. During his tenure, the Supreme Court has molded existing jurisprudence in this area to expand the original contours of qualified immunity protection. Qualified immunity has developed to a point wherein constitutional claims against a police officer are difficult, although not impossible, to sustain.

The second reason is tied into the summer of 2020 protests across the United States wherein the protection offered by qualified immunity was one among many grievances lodged against police in the United States. Demands that qualified immunity be removed as a protection from civil lawsuits against officers were heard in every corner of protest and reiterated by many politicians seeking a two-minute sound bite on the evening news. Several state legislatures went so far as to eliminate qualified immunity as a defense to actions initiated in state courts. However, the Supreme Court remained moored to its prior jurisprudence in this area.

This past October 4 began the court’s 2021 term and the first two opinions issued in the new term focused on qualified immunity.
This past October 4 began the court’s 2021 term and the first two opinions issued in the new term focused on qualified immunity. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Use of force and qualified immunity

In City of Tahlequah v. Bond and Rivas-Villegas v. Cortesluna, both issued on October 22, 2021, the court found that the lower federal appellate courts’ findings against the involved officers’ use of force were in error. The Ninth and Tenth Circuit Courts of Appeal found that existing precedent within their respective circuits had put the officers on notice that they were violating a “clearly established law.” The force used in Bond was a fatal shooting and in Cortesluna it was the placement of a knee on the back of a suspect who was being disarmed of a knife.

In both opinions, the Supreme Court admonished the lower circuits – the Tenth Circuit in Bond for defining “clearly established law at too high a level of generality” and the Ninth Circuit in Cortesluna for using existing circuit precedent as a “broad general proposition” and not “in light of the specific context of the case.” The court in Cortesluna reiterated its prior position that precedent does not require a case directly on point for there to be a violation of a clearly established law, but case precedent “must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate.” (Citing White v. Pauly, 137 S.Ct. 548 (2017).)

A few months earlier, in its June 28, 2021, opinion Lombardo v. City of St. Louis, the court overturned an Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in favor of officers in a use of force case. The facts of that case centered on the death of a homeless man who was arrested for trespass and failure to appear on a traffic ticket. While in a holding cell the man attempted to hang himself.

The responding officers tried to handcuff him, but he struggled with them. What followed was a scuffle between him and the officers resulting in him hitting his head on a bench and an officer being kicked in the groin. Leg shackles were requested along with additional help. After his legs were shackled, the arrestee continued to struggle and the officers moved him to a prone position face down on the holding cell floor. Three officers restrained him by the shoulders, arms and legs, while a fourth officer placed pressure on his upper body and back area. The individual tried to raise his chest from the floor and told the officers that he was in pain. He struggled for approximately 15 minutes in the prone position and then stopped breathing and moving. Emergency medical aid was administered and the individual was transported to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Upon a subsequent review of the Eastern District of Missouri’s grant of summary judgment, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a reasonable jury could not find that the officers used excessive force, therefore no liability would attach to their actions. The Supreme Court reversed in a short per curiam opinion wherein it said that in determining the reasonableness of use of force under the standard in Graham v. Connor (1989), lower courts “cannot apply this standard mechanically.”

This court cited its 2015 holding in Kingsley v. Hendrickson that outlined several factors for determining objective reasonableness. These factors include “the relationship between the need for the use of force and the amount of force used; the extent of the plaintiff’s injury; any effort made by the officer to temper or to limit the amount of force; the severity of the security problem at issue; the threat reasonably perceived by the officer; and whether the plaintiff was actively resisting.” (Kingsley at 397.)

The Supreme Court’s per curiam opinion referred to the evidentiary record’s inclusion of “well known” police guidance regarding the removal of prone arrestees from their stomach as soon as handcuffed due to the risk of suffocation. The court emphasized that the inquiry in use of force cases requires a “careful, context-specific analysis” under its use of force precedent. Accordingly, the court sent the case back to the Eighth Circuit to review the matter according to the facts and circumstances presented to determine whether the district court’s summary judgment dismissal was appropriate.

While this case focused on the inquiry attendant to use of force claims by reviewing courts, the element of qualified immunity was present because the two lower courts had both found the use of force was not per se unreasonable. The Supreme Court opinion did not comment on the reasonableness of the force used, but it did hold that the level of inquiry applied was not consistent with its prior precedents.

In the court’s other qualified immunity case, Taylor v. Riojas from November 2020, the court took the unusual step in allowing a lawsuit to proceed against correction officers for placing a prisoner in a filthy, feces-covered cell. The prisoner was held in two unsanitary cells for a period of six days. He did not eat for several days for fear his food was contaminated by the conditions and he was without a toilet in the second cell. Despite requests to be brought to a bathroom, he was told to use the drain on the floor. He also was without a bed in one cell and made to sleep naked on the filthy floor.

The Supreme Court held that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals erred in granting the officers qualified immunity because “the particularly egregious facts of this case” would signal to any reasonable officer that the “conditions of confinement offended the Constitution.”

Fourth Amendment seizure

The Fourth Amendment seizure case of Torres v. Madrid answered the question of whether a person is seized by the police when they apply physical force to the body but do not actually subdue the person?

The facts of the case involved an early morning encounter between two non-uniformed New Mexico State Police officers and a woman standing by a vehicle in front of an Albuquerque apartment complex. The officers were there to execute an arrest warrant and approached the woman as she entered the vehicle. They asked to speak with her but she feared they were carjackers and drove off. The officers fired at her 13 times as she drove off and struck her twice. She continued to drive away from the area and proceeded to a hospital 75 miles away.

The woman eventually sued for excessive force. The district court granted summary judgment and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals held that her continued flight after being shot negated her Fourth Amendment excessive force claim. 

Prior Supreme Court decisions, most notably California v. Hodari D. (1991), suggested that a seizure only occurred when there was a submission to a show of authority or actual physical control gained over the suspect. A split among the federal appellate courts had some holding that a seizure occurred when physical force is applied, regardless of whether the suspect submits to the force, and others holding that physical control of a suspect is required for a seizure.

The court in Torres sided with the former view. Chief Justice Roberts wrote that “the application of physical force to the body of a person with intent to restrain is a seizure even if the person does not submit and is not subdued.” By vacating and remanding the case the Supreme Court did not address the reasonableness of the force used, the damages caused by the seizure, or if qualified immunity applied, it merely held that the woman was subjected to a Fourth Amendment seizure.

The last two cases reviewed also concern the Fourth Amendment and two well-known exceptions to the warrant requirement – the police community caretaking function and exigent circumstance. Caniglia v. Strom involved a wife’s call to check on the welfare of her husband who she last saw after he placed a handgun on the dining room table and asked her “to shoot [him] and get it over with.” Arriving officers, accompanied by the wife, found the husband on the porch. After talking with him, he agreed to go for a psychiatric evaluation. However, the husband conditioned his voluntary evaluation on the officers not confiscating his firearms.

Once he left in the ambulance the officers entered the home and seized the firearms. The husband sued the officers for Fourth Amendment violations which included the warrantless entry into his home to seize the firearms. The district court granted summary judgment to the officers and the First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed on the theory that the officers’ removal of the firearms was justified under the Supreme Court’s community caretaking exception from Cady v. Dombrowski (1973).

Justice Thomas differentiated the facts and holding of Cady from those of the present case since the former involved a vehicle and Caniglia was an intrusion into the home. “Neither the holding nor the logic of Cady justified that approach,” Justice Thomas wrote, “this recognition that police officers perform many civic tasks in modern society was just that – a recognition that these tasks exist, and not an open-ended license to perform them anywhere.”

The case of Lange v. California centered on the pursuit of a fleeing misdemeanor suspect into his garage. A California Highway Patrol officer turned on his overhead lights to pull over a motor vehicle operator who drove past the officer while playing loud music and honking his horn. The motorist did not stop and instead continued a short distance to his home where he pulled into the driveway and into his garage. The officer followed and after brief questioning and observation of intoxication he had the motorist submit to field sobriety tests. A subsequent BAC test revealed the motorist to be three times above the legal limit.

The Fourth Amendment concern, in this case, was the officer’s warrantless entry and the resulting evidence obtained. Justice Kagan, writing for the majority, said there was no categorical rule when it involves a suspect’s flight. While flight can change the “calculus” of an officer’s decision-making, the presence of a minor offense does not usually lead to the same kind of emergency justifying a warrantless home entry. A misdemeanant’s flight has to be assessed on a case-by-case basis, not as a categorical approval of a per se exigency allowing entry into the home.

2021 SCOTUS summary

The above summary of Supreme Court opinions from 2021 indicates the long-standing truisms that the court is highly protective of the home and that qualified immunity review, while requiring context-specific inquiry, will not shield egregious or blatantly unconstitutional conduct.

NEXT: Qualified immunity for LEOs is under assault: Will the doctrine survive the attack?

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