Arlington, Virginia—Four years ago, Luke Stewart was roused awake by a police officer knocking on his car window after a neighbor called to report a suspicious man asleep in a car. Stewart, who was unarmed and waiting for his friend to return home, did not do anything to threaten the officer, but the situation quickly escalated to the point that the officer jumped in the car, drew his gun and killed Stewart. Stewart’s family demanded justice and sued the officer and his employer, the city of Euclid, Ohio. Now, after losing in lower courts, their case is pending appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court, which is set to consider whether it will hear the case on Thursday, May 20th.
The case centers around a legal doctrine called “qualified immunity.” The doctrine, which was created by the Supreme Court in 1982, grants government employees like police officers and others near total immunity from being sued for violating someone’s rights. The only exception is if a judge in a previous case has determined that the same action was illegal, which is frustratingly rare.
Originally the doctrine only applied to individual government employees, but courts have increasingly extended it to cover cities, counties and other governmental bodies. In doing so, they’ve deprived aggrieved individuals anyone—or anything—to hold accountable.
“The Supreme Court should step in, reverse this dangerous decision, and reiterate that qualified immunity does not shield local governments from accountability when they violate individuals’ constitutional rights,” said IJ Attorney Marie Miller, who authored the amicus brief. “If our constitutional rights are unenforceable, as the lower court treated Stewart’s rights, then our rights are nothing more than words on paper.”
At issue in the Stewarts’ case is Euclid’s officer training program, which set a flippant tone by including a sarcastic sketch by Chris Rock and, among other things, a crude cartoon. The sketch, for instance, sarcastically suggested black people should “get a white friend” if they don’t want to get beaten up by police. And the cartoon depicted an officer beating a defenseless person on the ground, with the caption: “Protecting and serving the poop out of you.” The Stewarts’ lawsuit alleged that Euclid’s training program failed to adequately equip officers to make split-second life-or-death decisions.
A decade has passed since the Supreme Court last addressed the scope of local-government liability for rights violations. In the meantime, the courts of appeals have diverged from one another, leaving governments in some parts of the country less accountable than others.
“The spread of qualified immunity protection to local governments strips Americans of the ability to hold their governments accountable when poorly trained officers offend their rights,” explained IJ Senior Attorney Wesley Hottot, a co-author of the brief. “At the same time, it eliminates those governments’ incentive to avoid violating people’s rights in the first place.”
The amicus brief in this case was filed as a part of IJ’s Project on Immunity and Accountability, which is dedicated to fighting against qualified immunity and other doctrines that make it difficult to vindicate individuals’ constitutional rights.