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On The Front Lines

Rutherford Institute Calls on Supreme Court to Stop Police From Using Excessive Force Against Individuals Who Have Surrendered or Complied

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In the wake of a spate of incidents involving the use of excessive force by police against unarmed individuals, including the brutal killing of Tyre Nichols by members of a Memphis SCORPION police unit, The Rutherford Institute has called on the U.S. Supreme Court to narrow the scope of qualified immunity granted to officers who assault suspects who have already surrendered or complied with police orders.

In a joint amicus brief with the Cato Institute in Salazar v. Molina, Institute attorneys take issue with a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that gives qualified immunity to a police officer who tased a non-violent suspect in the back after he lay down to surrender. The ruling essentially gives police a green light to punish and harm suspects solely based upon their initial resistance. The brief warns that this ruling undermines public safety by discouraging suspects from surrendering or complying with police commands.

“We are approaching a crisis over the public’s lack of trust in police, especially those who feel empowered to act as judge, jury and executioner,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “Police officers who have almost absolute discretion to decide who is a threat, what constitutes resistance, and how harshly they can deal with those they were appointed to protect are not making America any safer.”

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 excessive 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 subjected to excessive force and brutality, 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 argue 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 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.


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