IJ Urges Second Circuit to Overturn Qualified Immunity for Officer Who Pointed Loaded Gun at Compliant Driver During Stop
NEW YORK—Today, the Institute for Justice (IJ) submitted an amicus brief in a case before the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, seeking to reverse a lower court’s decision to shield a police officer from trial after he pointed a loaded gun at a compliant driver during a routine traffic stop. That decision, IJ argues, is emblematic of qualified immunity’s unjustified expansion and its threat to everyone’s efforts to hold officers accountable for Fourth Amendment violations.
On January 28, 2019, James Cerisier was driving to his job as a public school teacher when he changed his mind on the route he wanted to take, because of city traffic. Cerisier was approaching a fork on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, put on his turn signal, and crossed a double solid line to head toward the Brooklyn Bridge, instead of continuing along the expressway. Police officer Saurabh Shah was outside his vehicle after conducting another traffic stop when he noticed Cerisier crossing the double line. Shah signaled for Cerisier to pull over. Then, after Cerisier had already stopped, Shah drew his loaded weapon and pointed it at Cerisier’s windshield for approximately 10 seconds. Ultimately, Shah let Cerisier off with a warning.
“Any reasonable person would acknowledge that pointing a loaded gun at someone who poses no threat to you is excessive,” said IJ Attorney Jaba Tsitsuashvili. “We hope our brief convinces the appeals court that the lower court made a mistake in shielding Officer Shah from accountability.”
Cerisier sued on July 2, 2019, arguing that Shah used excessive force when he pointed a loaded firearm at him, in violation of the Fourth Amendment. However, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York granted Shah qualified immunity. Qualified immunity is a judge-made legal doctrine that shields government officials from civil lawsuits for violating constitutional rights, unless the right at issue is “clearly established.” The district court recognized that “ordinarily” this case should have been allowed to proceed. Nonetheless, despite several appellate court pronouncements to the contrary, the court reasoned that it was not “clearly established” that an officer violates the Fourth Amendment by pointing a loaded gun at a compliant person without accompanying verbal threats or physical contact by the officer. Thus, Cerisier’s claims against Shah were dismissed. Now, Cerisier is appealing that decision to the Second Circuit.
“Superficial differences between cases shouldn’t prevent people from getting justice when their rights are violated,” said IJ Bingham Fellow Anna Goodman. “Officer Shah’s decision to pull a loaded gun was excessive and unreasonable, even though he didn’t shout verbal threats at Cerisier.”
As part of its Project on Immunity and Accountability, IJ is fighting back against qualified immunity and standing up for the rights of Americans who have had their rights violated by government officials. IJ has filed lawsuits around the country challenging qualified immunity, including one in Ohio where police raided a man’s apartment and arrested him over a parody Facebook page, one in New Mexico where a road-raging police officer held a man at gunpoint in his own driveway for no reason, and another in Texas where city officials conspired to have a political opponent jailed for speaking out against the city manager.