On The Front Lines
Failing to Hold Police, Law Enforcement Accountable for Wrongdoing, U.S. Supreme Court Affirms Immunity Protections for Government Officials
WASHINGTON, DC — Ruling in two separate cases in Plumhoff v. Rickard and Wood v. Moss, the U.S. Supreme Court has once again refused to hold law enforcement officials accountable for allegedly violating citizens’ constitutional rights. In the first case, the Court dismissed complaints against police officers who were involved in a fatal shooting, despite Fourth Amendment concerns that the officers needlessly resorted to a deadly use of force, and in the second, the Court granted “qualified immunity” to Secret Service officials who relocated anti-Bush protesters, despite concerns raised that the protesters’ First Amendment right to freely speak, assemble, and petition their government leaders had been violated. Noting that these decisions are part of a recent trend toward granting government officials “qualified immunity” in lawsuits over alleged constitutional violations, John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, warned that such rulings incentivize government officials to violate constitutional rights without fear of repercussion.
“Not a day goes by without reports of police officers overstepping the bounds of the Constitution and brutalizing, terrorizing and killing the citizenry. Indeed, the list of incidents in which unaccountable police abuse their power, betray their oath of office and leave taxpayers bruised, broken and/or killed grows longer and more tragic by the day to such an extent that Americans are now eight times more likely to die in a police confrontation than they are to be killed by a terrorist,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. “This lawlessness on the part of government officials, an unmistakable characteristic of a police state, is made possible in large part by the courts, which increasingly defer to law enforcement and prioritize security over civil liberties. In so doing, the government gives itself free rein to abuse the law, immune from reproach, and we are all the worse off for it.”
In Wood v. Moss, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that Secret Service agents who removed only anti-Bush protesters (while allowing pro-Bush supporters standing on an adjacent street to remain) were not immune from lawsuit on First Amendment grounds, and had to make a showing that their actions were not unlawfully motivated by the viewpoint of the protesters. In reversing the Ninth Circuit, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the protesters’ rights to “equal access to the President” were not clearly established under the law, and that the agents’ actions were not motivated by the viewpoint of the protesters.
In Plumhoff v. Rickard, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that police officers who used lethal force against a man fleeing police in a high speed car chase were not immune from a wrongful death suit, and that the case should continue to trial. In Plumhoff, the deceased plaintiff led police officers on a high-speed car chase, which came to a halt after his car was spun out in a parking lot. Officers proceeded to fire three shots at the stopped vehicle, then fired an additional 12 shots as the vehicle backed away, eventually killing both the driver and passenger of the vehicle. The Sixth Circuit held that it could not conclude that the officers’ conduct was reasonable as a matter of law, and instead should proceed to a fact finder. In reversing the Sixth Circuit’s decision, the Supreme Court held that the officers’ use of deadly force to terminate the car chase did not violate the Fourth Amendment and the officers were immune from suit.