January 27, 2020

The Institute for Justice launched the Project on Immunity and Accountability with a petition for certiorari that highlights the threat these immunity doctrines pose to fundamental rights.

When our client Shaniz West came home to find her house surrounded by local police looking for her ex-boyfriend, she did what the government probably hopes all citizens would do. She told them the truth (her ex wasn’t there) but gave them permission to go inside to look for themselves.

The problem is that they didn’t go inside—at least, not for a long time. Instead, they decided to besiege the house, repeatedly firing tear-gas grenades and destroying walls, ceilings, and essentially everything Shaniz owned. At the end of the siege, the police discovered what Shaniz had already told them: The ex-boyfriend wasn’t there. Instead, they had spent the day bombarding a house that was empty except for Shaniz’s dog, Blue.

Shaniz sued, arguing that she had given police consent only to go inside her house, not to blow it up. But she lost. She didn’t lose because the courts held that consent to go into a house is consent to destroy it. She lost because no court had ever ruled in a case exactly like hers before. And because no court had explicitly considered these facts, qualified immunity applied.

IJ is asking the Supreme Court of the United States to take Shaniz’s case and rule that qualified immunity cannot be used like this to strip basic protections for property rights. With Shaniz’s case—and more like it to come—IJ will take on the complex system of government immunity to make sure that officials are held accountable for constitutional violations—and that individuals have a path forward when defending their rights.

Robert McNamara is an IJ senior attorney.

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