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Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Tenth Circuit adds to the pantheon of awful qualified-immunity decisions

From the Tenth Circuit, in a case arising from Denver police seizure of a tablet computer from a bystander who filmed police using force against another person. This involves less egregious facts than six hours in a feces-laden cell or stealing coins while executing a warrant.  But it demonstrates how far afield the analysis has gone.

Denver police department told officers in their training that the First Amendment protected the right to record. The officers disregarded express departmental guidelines--that is, they knew their conduct violated the First Amendment as they had been instructed on it. The court said that was irrelevant because: 1) the officers' subjective knowledge of their wrongdoing is irrelevant under Harlow's objective standard and 2) only judicial opinions can clearly establish rights because the Constitution means what the courts say, regardless of any training by the executive department.

This seems wrong for several reasons.

First, the standard that SCOTUS has floated in recent cases is that qualified immunity protects "all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law." What does that second point mean if it does not allow immunity to be lost when the officer knows the law and still violates it. Second, SCOTUS has looked at departmental guidance in the qualified immunity analysis. In Wilson v. Layne, the Court pointed to US Marshal regulations allowing media ride-alongs and said they could establish the lawfulness of conduct, so long as they were not obviously unconstitutional; it should follow that guidance can establish what is not lawful. In Hope v. Pelzer, the fact use of the hitching post was prohibited by Alabama Bureau of Prisons guidelines helped clearly establish the right, along with not-quite-on-point precedent. And the Third Circuit in Fields v. City of Philadelphia considered the role of departmental policy in clearly establishing a right, although the court there said the regs did not clearly establish the constitutional right because it was not clear that the regs were grounded in the First Amendment as opposed to good policy. Nevertheless, the parties and the court worked on the understanding that departmental policy is part of the analysis. At the same time, of course, the existence of department policy instructing officers allows the city to avoid municipal liability because they had trained their officers on a highly protective version of the First Amendment.

Second, the sort of naked judicial supremacy is unwarranted and unjustified. Yes, executive interpretation will yield to judicial understanding once matters hit court. But the court leaves no room for departmentalist interpretation and training.

Third, the court pulled an interesting sleight-of-hand in looking at law from other circuits circa 2014 (when these events occurred). Four circuits had recognized some First Amendment protection for recording of police pre-2014. A "robust consensus" of non-SCOTUS authority can clearly establish. But the court said none of those courts had found the right clearly established; the court was more persuaded by the non-finding of the right as clearly established (although some cases were not for damages and thus immunity was not in issue) than by the conclusion that the First Amendment was violated. And one of the cases had a dissent (Judge Posner dissented in the Seventh Circuit case), suggesting a disagreement among judges that precludes a right being clearly established.

Fourth, the court bypassed the merits. Why? Because everyone in the case agrees that the First Amendment right to record exists and was violated here. And the constitutional question is best resolved in an adversarial posture featuring powerful arguments on both sides. So these officers are off the hook, so this case does not even put the next officer on the hook for the same misconduct. So the court may have offered officials a wonderful new strategy in § 1983 cases: Concede the merits, prompting the court to skip ruling on the merits and allowing the officers to prevail on clearly established. The court will never provide the precedent it has deemed necessary. And if formal government policy cannot clearly establish a right, litigation concessions certainly cannot do so.

A depressing piece of work. I am curious to see if it survives en banc review. Or if this will be the case that prompts reconsideration of this mess.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on March 30, 2021 at 02:38 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink

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