Supreme Court Finds that Officers Are Entitled to Qualified Immunity Finding Officers Did Not Violate Clearly Established Law
Recently, the Supreme Court held that a police officer who arrived late to ongoing police action did not violate clearly established law by failing to ensure that other officers carried out proper procedural warnings prior to his arrival.
Daniel Pauly was involved in a “road-rage” incident on a highway near Santa Fe, New Mexico. Two women saw Daniel “swerving all crazy” in his truck and followed him down the highway with their bright lights on. Daniel pulled is truck over at an off-ramp to confront them. After a brief encounter with them, Daniel drove to a secluded house where he lived with his brother, Samuel Pauly.
Between 9:00 and 10:00pm, Officer Kevin Truesdale was dispatched to respond to the women’s 911 call. Officer Truesdale arrived to meet the women on the off-ramp after Daniel left the scene. The women then provided Officer Truesdale the license plate number of Daniel’s vehicle. Officer Truesdale discovered that the plate belonged to Samuel.
Officers Ray White and Michael Mariscal met Officer Truesdale at the off-ramp and decided that there was insufficient probable cause to arrest Daniel. Still, the officers decided to speak with Daniel to hear his side of the story, to ensure nothing else happened, and to find out if Daniel was intoxicated.
Officers Mariscal and Truesdale arrived at the address corresponding with the license plate number provided by the women. Two different houses were located on the property, one with lights and one without lights. When the officers approached the house with lights on, they found Daniel’s truck. The officers also noticed two men walking around inside the house and radioed Officer White.
At approximately 11:00pm, the Pauly brothers became aware of individuals outside and yelled out to see what they wanted. The officers laughed in response and stated, “Hey (expletive), we got you surrounded. Come out or we’re coming in.” Officer Truesdale then yelled “Open the door, State Police, open the door.” However, the Pauly brothers only heard someone yell, “We’re coming in. We’re coming in.” The brothers armed themselves and yelled out that they had guns.
Officer White arrived when the brothers yelled out that they had guns, drew his own gun, and took cover behind a stone wall about 50 feet from the house. Daniel went out the back door and fired two shotgun blasts. Samuel opened the front window and pointed a handgun in Officer White’s direction. Officer Mariscal fired at Samuel, but missed. Officer White then shot and killed Samuel Pauly.
Samuel Pauly’s estate and Daniel Pauly filed suit against the officers, claiming that the officers were liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violating Samuel’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force. The officers moved for summary judgment on qualified immunity ground. In particular, Officer White argued that the Pauly brothers could not show that Officer White’s use of force violated the Fourth Amendment and that Samuel’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from deadly force was not clearly established here. The district court denied qualified immunity on all claims.
A divided panel of the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. The court of appeals held that “[a]ccepting as true plaintiffs’ version of the facts, a reasonable person in the officers’ position should have understood their conduct would cause Samuel and Daniel Pauly to defend their home and could result in the commission of deadly force against Samuel Pauly by Officer White.” The panel majority analyzed Officer White’s claim separately because he arrived late to the ongoing police action. Despite the fact that “Officer White … arrived late on the scene and heard only ‘We have guns’ … before taking cover behind a stone wall,” the majority held that a jury could conclude that Officer White’s use of force was not reasonable. Further, the court of appeals decided that a reasonable officer in Officer White’s position would believe that a warning was required despite the threat of serious harm.
The officers petitioned for rehearing en banc, which 6 of the 12 judges on the court of appeals voted to grant. The officers then petitioned for certiorari with the Supreme Court of the United States to determine whether the law clearly established that an officer facing an occupant pointing a weapon in his direction must refrain from firing until he identifies himself and shouts a warning. The Court granted the petition.
While the Supreme Court’s case law does not require a case directly on point for a right to be clearly established, existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate. Here, the Supreme Court found that the court of appeals relied on too high a level of generality and failed to give consideration to the unique set of facts and circumstances at issue. The Court stated that particularized consideration to the facts of this case should have indicated to the court of appeals that Officer White’s conduct did not violate a clearly established right.
The Court held that clearly established federal law does not prohibit a reasonable officer who arrives late to an ongoing police action from assuming that proper procedures, such as officer identification, have already been followed. The Court further found that no settled Fourth Amendment principle requires an officer to second-guess the earlier steps taken by his fellow officers. As such, the Supreme Court vacated the judgment of the court of appeals and remanded the case for further proceedings.
Read the full case: White v. Pauly
This case law update was written by Micahel J. Sgarlat, associate attorney, Shaw Bransford & Roth, P.C.
For thirty years, Shaw Bransford & Roth P.C. has provided superior representation on a wide range of federal employment law issues, from representing federal employees nationwide in administrative investigations, disciplinary and performance actions, and Bivens lawsuits, to handling security clearance adjudications and employment discrimination cases.
Posted in Case Law Update