By Andrew Chung
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday sidestepped a chance to review the scope of a legal defense called qualified immunity that increasingly has been used to shield police accused of excessive force, turning away an appeal by a Cleveland man who sued after being roughed up by police while trying to enter his own home.
The justices declined to hear the appeal by Shase Howse, who said he was slammed to the ground outside the house where he lived with his mother in a poor and mostly Black neighborhood, struck in the back of the neck and jailed after police deemed his actions suspicious. Howse, who was 20 at the time, is Black. The police involved in the 2016 incident are white.
Qualified immunity protects police officers and other types of government officials from civil litigation in certain circumstances, allowing lawsuits only when an individual’s “clearly established” statutory or constitutional rights have been violated.
Police use of force has been closely scrutinized following the May 2020 death of a Black man named George Floyd after a Minneapolis officer knelt on his neck.
The U.S. House of Representatives last Wednesday passed policing reform legislation that among other provisions would eliminate the qualified immunity defense for law enforcement. The legislation, supported by most Democrats and opposed by Republicans, faces an uphill battle in the Senate.
Howse’s case was featured in a Reuters investigation into qualified immunity published in December. The investigation illustrated how the endorsement of this defense by courts has denied Black Americans recourse to justice under a law enacted 150 years ago specifically to protect them from abuses by state and local authorities in the post-Civil War years.
Howse sued two police officers, Brian Middaugh and Thomas Hodous, accusing them of excessive force in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. The officers said they used only the force necessary to subdue Howse.
The Cincinnati, Ohio-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2020 granted the officers qualified immunity, ruling that no “clearly established” precedent showed that their actions were unlawful.
In May 2020, a Reuters investigation revealed how qualified immunity, under the careful stewardship of the Supreme Court, has made it easier for police to kill or injure civilians with impunity by shielding them from lawsuits, even when courts determine police actually violated a person’s constitutional rights.
Law enforcement professionals and some U.S. conservatives have argued that qualified immunity is essential for police to make quick decisions in dangerous situations without fear of lawsuits.
In recent months, the Supreme Court has signaled a potential softening of its approach to qualified immunity. In two cases the justices allowed inmates to sue prison guards who had been granted immunity by lower courts from accusations that they violated the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.