Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is reiterating her disdain for qualified immunity—a legal doctrine that protects certain government officials from accountability—decades after the high court legislated it into existence.
Sotomayor was critical of her colleagues refusing to consider a plea from the family members of the victim, who was killed while being questioned by police officers. Monday’s Court orders were released. Sotomayor points out that the man did not threaten officers and was in fact a threat to his own safety. But, the cop was granted qualified immunity.
“I only add that qualified immunity effectively shields officers from liability when police officers act reasonably to safeguard themselves and others,” she said. It does not cover an officer who uses deadly force against a person who poses no threat to themselves.
Sotomayor is not the only one who believes that decisions like these are made according to ideological principles. But she’s not the only one to be against qualified immunity. Justice Clarence Thomas, the most outspoken critic of qualified immunity is also a traitor.
Noah Bartelt, a New Jersey State Police Trooper, approached Willie Gibbons. Gibbons had just had an argument with his ex partner, who was under a restraining orders against him. Gibbons pointed a gun at himself; Bartelt instructed Gibbons not to. He was shot twice by the officer, killing him. The officer shot Gibbons twice, killing him. It’s not clear if Gibbons heard the order or if he gave Gibbons enough time to obey.
Original suit against Bartelt was brought before the U.S. District Court of New Jersey. The court declined to grant Bartelt qualified immunity. U.S. Court of Appeals of the Third Circuit ruled against that. They concluded it wasn’t “clearly established” by previous case law that an officer such as Bartelt would have been aware of his unreasonable actions. A victim of abuse by the government must find precedents that are almost identical to the circumstances in which the misconduct was committed to qualify immunity.
Qualified immunity has been granted to cops for violating First Amendment rights. This includes shooting someone driving away or killing someone sleeping in their car. Also, they were able to destroy an innocent man’s house with explosives and physically hurt suspects that had surrendered. The court did not declare that this behavior was inappropriate.
The Supreme Court has declined to hear a spate of qualified immunity cases over the years, including that of a cop who shot a 10-year-old, two cops who allegedly stole $225,000 while executing a search warrant, and two cops who arrested a man on bogus charges after assaulting him on his porch.
Thomas and Sotomayor are the two most open to the doctrine’s rebuttal, but they don’t have the same skepticism as Thomas. Two qualified immunity rulings were overturned by the Court in unusual moves. The first was for a naked prisoner, who claimed that he was forced into cells with sewage and feces. The second concerned a prisoner who claims that a guard peppersprayed him just for fun.
These two plaintiffs will be able to settle their case before a jury. Gibbons’ family is not likely to have the same luck.