Arlington, Va.—Today, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a case of a county highway engineer who went rogue and acted like a police officer, then got away with it due to qualified immunity. As a result of the Court’s refusal to hear the case, government officials are more free to act outside their job duties and face no consequences when they violate constitutional rights. What’s worse, the federal appeals court decision left standing by the Supreme Court essentially results in greater protection for those who don’t do their jobs than those who do.
Central Specialties, Inc. (CSI) is a family-owned road construction company that was represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ) in its petition asking the Supreme Court to take up its case against Jonathan Large, a highway engineer for Mahnomen County, Minnesota. In July 2017, Large violated CSI’s constitutional rights by pulling over two of its trucks and detaining CSI drivers for over three hours—despite having no authority to do so—while he tried to get law enforcement to come ticket them. Minnesota law does not empower highway engineers to act as police officers, so CSI took Large to court. There, Large claimed he could not be sued because, as a government official, he is protected by qualified immunity. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.
“The Supreme Court has left in place a dangerous precedent that in no way accomplishes the original goal of qualified immunity, which was supposed to be about police officers who are forced to make split-second decisions,” said Anya Bidwell, an IJ attorney. “Now, ironically, a county highway engineer who goes beyond his job duties and acts like he has the power of a police officer is probably better protected than an actual police officer acting within his job duties.”
Here’s how the Eighth Circuit’s decision, and now the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear CSI’s case, leads to the perverse result that those who don’t do their jobs get a greater degree of protection than those who do:
Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that shields government officials from being sued when they violate people’s constitutional rights. To get around qualified immunity and get their day in court, plaintiffs must show that the right the official violated was “clearly established.” The “clearly established” question typically comes down to whether there is a previous case on record with similar facts, where the court decided the official’s actions were unconstitutional. But if a government official is acting outside of his duties when he violates the Constitution, it is unlikely that there will be previous case law with similar facts. Meanwhile, if an official is acting within his duties, it is more likely that previous case law with similar facts will exist. That means the highway engineer who acts like a police officer will be more protected by qualified immunity than a police officer who is doing his job.
That cannot be right, but it is exactly the result now that the Supreme Court has refused to hear CSI’s case.
“It seems to me that the Supreme Court has basically said that anyone who works for the government, not just the police, can pull you over and detain you,” said CSI’s president and CEO Allan Minnerath. “That’s what happened to our drivers, and it’s just not right. We are of course hugely disappointed. How can it be that those who don’t do their job are still protected by qualified immunity? The police do dangerous jobs and we don’t want to second-guess them when faced with split-second situations. But that has nothing to do with what happened here. This ruling is a disservice to everyone.”
“The Supreme Court has said that the purpose of qualified immunity is to give government officials ‘breathing room’ to do their jobs,” said IJ Attorney Betsy Sanz. “But officials do not need ‘breathing room’ to do things they are not authorized to do—so they should not get qualified immunity. We will not stop fighting until the Supreme Court recognizes this commonsense rule.”
“The Institute for Justice is committed to the idea that government officials are accountable for their actions and should not get blanket immunity when they violate the constitutional rights of others,” said Scott Bullock, president and general counsel for the Institute for Justice. “We will continue to stand by citizens like Allan and CSI who are asking the Supreme Court to make clear that government officials must follow the Constitution.”
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[NOTE: To arrange interviews on this subject, journalists may call John Kramer, IJ’s vice president for communications, at (703) 682-9320 ext. 205. More information on the case is available at: https://ij.org/case/minnesota-csi/.