Court Decides Qualified Immunity Case
A decision in late November by the U.S. Supreme Court regarding qualified immunity for police officers has implications for those in federal law enforcement.
In Mullenix v. Luna, decided in November, the Court reversed a decision by the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that had stripped a state trooper of qualified immunity after his actions resulted in the death of a dangerous fleeing felon.
The felon, Leija, had initially been tracked to a fast food restaurant by an officer who subsequently attempted to arrest Leija under an outstanding warrant. Leija instead fled the scene in a vehicle, with the officer and later a state trooper in pursuit. During this chase, Leija repeatedly called the police dispatcher in an attempt to end the pursuit, threatening to kill any police officer who he encountered. At an overpass on Leija’s predicted route an officer set up a spike strip under the overpass while Trooper Mullenix waited on the overpass with a rifle. As Leija’s car approached, Mullenix fired six shots at the vehicle, which hit the spike strip, hit the median, and rolled over. Leija was killed, and the shots fired by Mullenix were later determined to be the cause of death. Leija’s estate sued Mullenix for a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of excessive force.
Eventually, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that Mullenix was not entitled to qualified immunity, finding his actions were in violation of a clearly established rule regarding deadly force against a fleeing felon who did “not pose a sufficient threat to the officer or others.” Mulllenix argued that his actions were to protect the officer under the overpass, other motorists, and the officers in pursuit, especially in light of Leija’s multiple threats to kill any officers in his path.
The Supreme Court reversed the Fifth Circuit and determined that Mullenix’s actions did entitle him to qualified immunity. As long as the conduct in question does not violate an established right, qualified immunity has protected police officers from civil liability. Relying on precedent in Scott v. Harris and Plumhoff v. Rickard, the Court found that Mullenix has not sufficiently put on notice through prior case law that his actions would be in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The Court did not determine whether his actions did constitute this violation: the decision was strictly on the qualified immunity requirement that an objectively reasonable officer not know that the actions were excessive or a violation of the Fourth Amendment.
While the Court eventually did find the Mullenix was entitled to qualified immunity, this case highlights some of the dangers inherent in the job of a police officer. This action happened to be against a state trooper, but the lessons can be applied to federal law enforcement officers. Just the cost of fighting an action in court alone could severely cripple your financial position, even if you eventually emerge vindicated. In cases such as these, there is always an incentive for harmed parties to bring civil actions against the federal officers involved. While the government may represent and indemnify the majority of its officers involved, some do fall outside the lines of protection. Visit www.fedsprotection.com today to learn more about how professional liability insurance (PLI) can provide you with legal representation and indemnification in the event of a job-related civil lawsuit. The FEDS policy, which also covers administrative and criminal matters, is only $290 a year. In the end, that is a small price to pay for the peace of mind and coverage knowing that you are protected in situations like this.
FEDS provides professional liability insurance for the entire federal law enforcement community. For information on your specific exposures, how professional liability insurance protects, or how the FEDS program differs from other insurance programs, visit us on the web at fedsprotection.com.
Posted in The Spotlight