DENVER—Mario Rosales did not give much thought to passing a pickup truck on his way home. But that simple act led him to be held at gunpoint by an off-duty sheriff’s deputy blinded by road rage. And though that deputy was convicted of assaulting Mario, Mario’s lawsuit against the officer and the county was dismissed because the deputy was granted “qualified immunity” for his actions. Today, the Institute for Justice (IJ), a national non-profit law firm that seeks to hold government officials accountable, appealed Mario’s case to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
“It makes no sense for courts to give officers and officials protection from lawsuits when they egregiously break the law,” said IJ Attorney Marie Miller. “The Supreme Court was explicit that qualified immunity was not supposed to protect lawlessness. It should be obvious that government officials convicted of criminal acts have not acted reasonably and so are liable for violating constitutional rights.”
In March 2018, Mario was driving home in his yellow Mustang in Roswell, New Mexico. He passed a black Ford pickup truck, driven by off-duty Chaves County Sheriff’s Deputy David Bradshaw. Bradshaw then tailed Mario to his home and blocked him in his driveway. Mario, not knowing the person following him was an officer, exited the Mustang with his legally owned handgun displayed openly in his pocket.
Mario remained calm as the deputy yelled and cursed at him. Bradshaw then pointed his own gun at Mario even though the deputy’s toddler was seated between the two men, in the front passenger seat. Mario agreed to put his own weapon back in the car and speak to the deputy in his driveway. Another sheriff’s deputy soon arrived and convinced Bradshaw to leave.
Mario was not ticketed, but Bradshaw was convicted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and child abuse. Chaves County dismissed Bradshaw from his job and has argued that what he did was outside the bounds of his employment. Mario sued Bradshaw and the sheriff’s department for violating his constitutional rights. The suit was dismissed by a district court in November 2021.
“My lawsuit is about standing up for my constitutional rights, but it’s also about making sure law enforcement agencies and officers are accountable,” said Mario. “An officer should not be able to hide behind their badge when they take the law into their own hands.”
The district court recognized that Mario’s constitutional rights were violated by Bradshaw holding him at gunpoint when he posed no threat. However, Mario’s case was dismissed because the officer was granted qualified immunity—a doctrine that the Supreme Court invented in 1982 to protect most government workers from being sued for unconstitutional conduct.
However, the Supreme Court wrote that qualified immunity would “provide no license to lawless conduct.” Mario’s appeal asks the court to reject qualified immunity because Bradshaw was acting outside his authority. Earlier cases make it clear that pointing a gun at a non-threatening person is unconstitutional, and it would be obvious to a reasonable officer that Bradshaw violated the Constitution.
“Police are entrusted to enforce the law, not break it,” said IJ Attorney Patrick Jaicomo. “Bradshaw’s former employer admits he acted outside the scope of his employment when he chased down and threatened Mario. Bradshaw has no business being shielded by qualified immunity.”
Mario’s case is part of IJ’s Project on Immunity and Accountability, which is dedicated to the simple idea that if the people must follow the law, our government must follow the Constitution. IJ recently asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the grant of qualified immunity to a Minnesota traffic engineer who, without any legal authority to do so, conducted traffic stops. The Supreme Court is also currently considering an IJ appeal from a Texas man who was threatened at gunpoint by an off-duty Homeland Security officer.