Monday, February 27, 2017
Qualified Immunity meets advisory opinions
One of my students flagged the Fifth Circuit decision in Turner v. Driver from two weeks ago. A divided panel held that the right to video-record police and police stations from the public sidewalk was not clearly established in September 2015. The court then went on to say:
Because the issue continues to arise in the qualified immunity context, we now proceed to determine it for the future. We conclude that First Amendment principles, controlling authority, and persuasive precedent demonstrate that a First Amendment right to record the police does exist, subject only to reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions.
That section of the opinion was even titled "Whether the Right Is Clearly Established Henceforth."
There has always been something advisory-opinionish about the qualified immunity analysis. The court addresses the merits and finds a violation, but does not impose liability in this casebecause the right was not clearly established. Instead, that merits analysis serves (perhaps) to clearly establish the right for the next case, at least the next case involving largely similar facts.
But the majority here seems to have crossed over into a pure advisory statement of abstract legal principles. It was not even purporting to do a merits-first analysis (and not just because this part came after the clearly established prong). The court did not find that the officers violated Turner's rights in this case. Rather, it simply announced a First Amendment right to record in public (subject to reasonable time, place, manner restrictions), devoid of any facts or details to the case at hand. And the court did so expressly because the issue would continue to arise in the qualified immunity context, where courts otherwise would continually have to deny liability because the right would forever remain not clearly established. Of course, the need to establish constitutional law is one reason that courts may and often should abide by the merits-first approach, even if not mandatory. This goes beyond that--law divorced from any facts or any violation in the case at hand.
Moreover, it is not clear the majority did or could achieve what it wanted to do. As the dissent argued, future cases must look to factually similar cases for the clearly established analysis, not general principles of law. But the facts were not part of the analysis here. Thus, the dissent argues, "[b]ecause the majority does not hold that the officers actually violated the First Amendment, 'an officer acting under similar circumstances”' in the future will not have violated any clearly established law."
It is good to have another circuit weighing in on the First Amendment right to record. But the way the court got there was procedurally odd.