Qualified Immunity for Police Officer Who Shot Woman in Own Front Yard

In a per curiam opinion dated April 2, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court found that a police officer who shot a woman suspected of no crime but who was holding a kitchen knife at her side in her own front yard was shielded from a civil suit by qualified immunity. The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials from some types of lawsuits arising from the performance of their duties. As national attention has increasingly focused on police shootings, the Supreme Court opinion prioritizes the officer’s view of what happened over the citizen’s, and it will probably make it even more difficult for citizens to recover money damages on claims of excessive force. In finding the officer was entitled to the protection of qualified immunity, the Supreme Court focused on the question of whether at the time of the shooting his actions violated clearly established law. Finding the officer’s actions did not, the Court reversed the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which in turn had reversed the District Court in granting summary judgment to the officer. The Supreme Court found the Ninth Circuit had misapplied its own precedents and interpreted “clearly established law” too generally. “Qualified immunity attaches when an official’s conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”[1] “Police officers are entitled to qualified immunity unless existing precedent ‘squarely governs’ the specific facts at issue.”[2] Applying the Ninth Circuit precedent, the Court found that the officer did not violate the woman’s clearly established Fourth Amendment right not to be subjected to the use of deadly force. Justice Sotomayor...

The Doctrine of Qualified Immunity

Recent well-publicized reports of citizens being injured or killed by police officers have produced public discourse on what civil liability law enforcement officers face for the use of excessive force. The pattern of grievous personal injury followed by administrative leave, no criminal charges, and an eventual return to employment has left the families of Eric Garner, Philando Castile, and Alton Sterling asking what civil remedies are available against law enforcement officers. The chief source of tort liability for excessive force cases is 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which provides a civil action for money damages “to any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof [for] the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws. . . .”[1] The United States Supreme Court has interpreted 42 U.S.C. § 1983 to create tort liability for police officers acting outside the scope of their lawful authority.[2] But even though police officers can be sued for violating civil rights, victims and their families seeking monetary compensation must still overcome a high hurdle before their cases will be heard: the doctrine of qualified immunity. There are various kinds of governmental immunity under the law. Federal and state governments, for example, are protected by what is called sovereign immunity, which protects them from suit unless they have passed legislation specifically allowing them to be sued.[3] “The doctrine of sovereign immunity from suit, rooted in the ancient common law, was originally based on the monarchical, semireligious tenet that ‘the King can do no wrong.’”[4] Both the federal government and the Commonwealth of Virginia have waived their sovereign immunity in...

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress in Virginia

Plaintiffs in defamation, insulting words, malicious prosecution, abuse of process, and other kinds of lawsuits in which no physical injuries are alleged will frequently add a count to their complaint for intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED). This choice may better reflect their attorney’s desire to be thorough and pursue every potential cause of action rather than any confidence in its chance to succeed on the merits, or even to overcome the inevitable demurrer. In the view of the Supreme Court of Virginia “there are inherent problems in proving a claim alleging injury to the mind or emotions in the absence of accompanying physical injury,” and the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress is not favored.[1] Without a physical injury, a plaintiff can only rarely recover for IIED. This article uses case examples to demonstrate what elements the Supreme Court of Virginia has held the plaintiff must prove in order to recover for intentional infliction of emotional distress. A cause of action for IIED, unaccompanied by physical injury, will lie when: One, the wrongdoer’s conduct was intentional or reckless. This element is satisfied where the wrongdoer had the specific purpose of inflicting emotional distress or where he intended his specific conduct and knew or should have known that emotional distress would likely result. Two, the conduct was outrageous and intolerable in that it offends against the generally accepted standards of decency and morality. This requirement is aimed at limiting frivolous suits and avoiding litigation in situations where only bad manners and mere hurt feelings are involved. Three, there was a causal connection between the wrongdoer’s conduct and the...