11th Circ. Ruling Doesn't Lower Qualified Immunity Bar

By Adriana Collado-Hudak | September 23, 2020, 4:55 PM EDT

Adriana Collado-Hudak
The saying "no good deed goes unpunished" tragically played out in a very final way when Robert Earl Lawrence tried to rescue a stray dog.

When the shelter would not accept the dog unless Lawrence provided ID and completed paperwork, Lawrence said he would leave the dog at the end of the road. An argument ensued between Lawrence and Sergeant Adrienne Woodruff, who was on duty at the shelter. Woodruff and two other officers attempted to handcuff Lawrence, who resisted, albeit nonviolently.

Suddenly and without warning, Woodruff fatally shot Lawrence in the stomach. Lawrence's girlfriend and young children witnessed the incident. Fortunately, so did a police dashboard camera.[1] 

Lawrence's estate filed a suit under Title 42 of the U.S. Code, Section 1983, alleging a Fourth Amendment violation of excessive force and a state claim for assault and battery. In a rare victory for victims of police overreach, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court's grant of summary judgment for Woodruff.

The grounds for this decision, however, reaffirm that the high standard required for victims of police abuse to defeat a qualified immunity defense is not going anywhere. At least not yet.

The Evolution of Qualified Immunity

The U.S. Supreme Court initially created qualified immunity as a safe harbor for public officials and law enforcement who acted in good faith and under the belief that their conduct was legally authorized.[2] In 1982, the court vastly expanded the doctrine by eliminating the good faith component and implementing the clearly established law standard.[3]

Today, qualified immunity protects police — even those who knowingly violate a person's constitutional rights — from liability unless the victim can point to a factually similar, previously decided case that addresses the same context and conduct.[4] This clearly established law standard is a hurdle most victims cannot clear, which prevents courts from adjudicating serious constitutional violations.

The sole exception to this demanding criteria is the so-called obvious clarity exception — conduct that so obviously violates the constitution that police need no preexisting case law to know that their actions violate the Fourth Amendment.[5] 

A Barrier to Justice

The ubiquitous use of cellphone and surveillance cameras has clued in the American public to what criminal defense and civil rights practitioners have known for a long time: Qualified immunity is a stubborn impediment to criminal justice and social reform, even in seemingly obvious cases of police abuse. 

Although the Supreme Court carved out qualified immunity to encourage law enforcement officers to do their jobs efficiently by protecting them from litigation, in reality, the doctrine enables police to violate victims' rights without consequence and leaves individuals with limited and onerous avenues for redress.

Qualified immunity also provides little incentive for law enforcement agencies to improve their practices. Consequently, people of color and vulnerable individuals who are the likeliest targets of police misconduct have the most to lose — including their lives. This, in turn, fuels social anger, mistrust of authority and unrest.

The doctrine also makes it difficult for victims to secure legal representation because if the court dismisses a lawsuit based on qualified immunity, the victim's attorneys will not recover any fees. Thus, fewer claims will reach the courthouse door, and the number of incidents involving police brutality will remain underrepresented.[6]

An Opening for Reform?

Public opinion has shifted, and two-thirds of Americans now support ending or limiting qualified immunity.[7] Social pressure can only do so much, however, and qualified immunity reform will not happen unless courts initiate it or lawmakers intervene.

So far, the Supreme Court has declined to narrow the qualified immunity defense, reconsider the clearly established law standard, or broaden the obvious clarity exception. In Cantu, the Eleventh Circuit declared its intent to stay within these bounds.[8] 

But while imminent reform appears unlikely, there is a glimmer of hope. Justice Clarence Thomas, perhaps the most conservative jurist on the Supreme Court, has expressed concerns about the court's qualified immunity precedents, characterizing them as the sort of "freewheeling policy choice[s]" that the court is not empowered to make and urging that, in the appropriate case, the court should "reconsider [its] qualified immunity jurisprudence."[9]

Perhaps this is a sign that the court may open the door to reevaluate qualified immunity in the not-too-distant future.

Cantu's Conclusions

In Cantu, the impartial eye of a dashcam provided the Eleventh Circuit with sufficient evidence that the obvious clarity exception applied.[10] Whether the decision would have been the same without the dashcam video is debatable.

While the opinion lays out facts that mitigate against qualified immunity for Woodruff — i.e., questionable reasons for Lawrence's detention; the fact that Lawrence did not strike or attack the officers; and that another officer already had Lawrence under control — the decision really turned on the video.[11] This hints at another reason why qualified immunity is problematic: Courts often give too much deference or credibility to law enforcements' words and justifications over that of an arrestee.

Victims who do not have direct evidence that contradicts or calls into question an officer's perspective have less chance of prevailing under the obvious clarity exception because police — who are experienced at giving testimony — are more adept at framing an incident in ways that sound credible and reasonable.

Interestingly, while Cantu references the officers' testimony, it does not mention whether Lawrence's girlfriend or children testified. If they did, would the court have found their testimony alone sufficient to support the obvious clarity exception? This remains an open question.

While Cantu is a win for Lawrence's family, it does not change the legal standard for qualified immunity or make it easier for victims to surmount the court-made hurdles that allow some dire wrongs to go unaddressed. 

And that's too bad. Not every constitutional transgression is caught on video.

Adriana Collado-Hudak is senior counsel at Greenspoon Marder LLP.

"Perspectives" is a regular feature written by guest authors on access to justice issues. To pitch article ideas, email expertanalysis@law360.com.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

[1] See Cantu v. City of Dothan , No. 18-15071 (11th Cir. Sept. 3, 2020).

[2] See Pierson v. Ray , 386 U.S. 547 (1967).

[3] See Harlow v. Fitzgerald , 457 U.S. 800 (1982).

[4] See Pearson v. Callahan , 555 U.S. 223, 232 (2009); Priester v. City of Riviera Beach , 208 F.3d 919, 926 (11th Cir. 2000). 

[5] See Hope v. Pelzer , 536 U.S. 730 (2001).

[6] See https://theappeal.org/qualified-immunity-explained/.

[7] See https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2020/07/09/majority-of-public-favors-giving-civilians-the-power-to-sue-police-officers-for-misconduct/; https://theappeal.org/qualified-immunity-explained/.

[8] Cantu v. City of Dothan, No. 18-15071, pg. 36 (11th Cir. Sept. 3, 2020).

[9] See Ziglar v. Abbasi , 137 S.Ct. 1843, 1871-72 (Thomas, J., concurring in part).

[10] See Cantu, No. 18-15071, p. 15, 26, 36.

[11] See Cantu, No. 18-15071, p. 15, 36.

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