On The Front Lines
Police Get a Green Light to Use Force Against Unarmed Individuals Who Have Already Surrendered or Complied
Amicus brief: Salazar v. Molina
WASHINGTON, DC — The U.S. Supreme Court has once again refused to hold police accountable for using force on unarmed individuals who have already surrendered or complied with police orders. Despite a series of high-profile incidents involving the use of unnecessary and excessive force by police against unarmed individuals, the Court declined to narrow the scope of qualified immunity granted to officers who assault non-violent suspects who have ceased to resist arrest.
Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute and Cato Institute had filed a joint amicus brief before the Supreme Court in Salazar v. Molina, challenging a lower court ruling that essentially gives police a green light to punish and harm suspects solely based upon their initial nonviolent resistance or flight. The legal coalition warned that the ruling by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which granted qualified immunity to a police officer who tased a non-violent suspect in the back after he lay down to surrender, undermines public safety by discouraging suspects from surrendering or complying with police commands.
“The old police motto to ‘protect and serve’ has become ‘comply or die,’” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “This is how we have gone from a nation of laws—where the least among us had just as much right to be treated with dignity and respect as the next person (in principle, at least)—to a nation of law enforcers (revenue collectors with weapons) who treat ‘we the people’ like suspects and criminals.”
In March 2014, around 2:00 a.m., a sheriff’s deputy in Zapata County, Texas, tried to pull over Juan Carlos Salazar for speeding. However, Salazar accelerated and led police on a high-speed chase for approximately five minutes. After two vehicles pulled out in front of Salazar and blocked his way forward, Salazar stopped his car, got out, raised his hands, and then lay face-down on the ground with his arms above his head to surrender. There was no indication that Salazar had any weapon or was violent. But within seconds, a sheriff’s deputy ran up and fired his taser at Salazar’s back while he was still lying prone on the ground.
Salazar subsequently filed a lawsuit claiming that the deputy used excessive force in violation of his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizure. The deputy moved to dismiss the lawsuit by claiming that he was entitled to qualified immunity. Although the trial court disagreed with the deputy, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that when a suspect has tried to evade capture, officers can question whether the suspect’s purported surrender is a ploy. Despite there being no reasonable indication of any such ploy by Salazar, the Fifth Circuit found that the deputy was entitled to qualified immunity and therefore dismissed the lawsuit against him.
The Fifth Circuit’s ruling follows in line with other court decisions, some of which have similarly justified an officer’s use of force based on very speculative harms. For instance, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the use of force by police on people who don’t understand police orders. In Edwards v. Harmon, police brutalized an African-American man who, despite complying with police orders during an arrest, was still subjected to use of force by police, including being thrown to the ground, tasered, and placed in a chokehold that rendered him unconscious and required his hospitalization for three days.
In weighing in before the U.S. Supreme Court in Salazar, The Rutherford Institute and Cato argued that police should be held accountable for using unnecessary and unreasonable violence against surrendering suspects.
Jay R. Schweikert and Clark M. Neily III of the Cato Institute advanced the arguments in the amicus brief.
The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.