Protestors across America have delivered a firm message in response to the deaths of black citizens at the hands of law enforcement: “This has to stop.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit used the same words on June 9 in ruling that officers must face a civil trial for the fatal shooting of Wayne Jones in Martinsburg, West Virginia.
The compelling opinion in Jones v. City of Martinsburg is a timely contribution to an issue with which the justice system has long grappled. Mr. Jones was killed in 2013, a year before the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Within months of the parties filing briefs in this appeal, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor died at the hands of police and Ahmaud Arbery was shot while jogging through a residential neighborhood in Georgia. The individuals who killed Mr. Arbery (one of whom was a retired law enforcement officer) claimed they were making a “citizen’s arrest.” Nationwide protests continued as the Fourth Circuit released its opinion on June 9.
Police officers may be criminally prosecuted when they harm citizens through the use of excessive force (although a grand jury declined to bring criminal charges in Mr. Jones’ death). Decedents’ estates may also bring civil lawsuits against the officers involved. In theory, those suits serve as a check on unlawful police behavior. But “qualified immunity” is a serious hurdle in these cases, often shielding officers from liability even when they use excessive force. Because of qualified immunity, lawsuits against police officers can succeed only if the officers violate the plaintiff’s clearly established constitutional rights. In other words, as the Supreme Court has explained, qualified immunity “protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.”
The Fourth Circuit reviewed the evidence Mr. Jones’ estate would be able to present to a jury at trial. Police pursued Mr. Jones, a 50-year old man experiencing homelessness and suffering from schizophrenia, after he fled from them during an interaction on the street. Believing Mr. Jones had a weapon, the officers tased him, kicked him and restrained him in a chokehold on the ground. The officers learned that Mr. Jones had a knife and drew back. They left him motionless on the ground. Five officers were on the scene by this point. All drew their guns and formed a semi-circle around him. They ordered Mr. Jones to drop the knife. When he did not respond or make any movements with the knife, they shot him 22 times, killing him.
Mr. Jones’ estate sued the police officers and the officers raised the defense of qualified immunity. The trial court determined that qualified immunity protected the officers, but the Fourth Circuit firmly rejected that conclusion and ruled that the officers must face trial.
Courts determine whether qualified immunity applies by conducting a two-step inquiry. They ask: “(1) whether a constitutional violation occurred; and (2) whether the right was clearly established at the time of the violation.” At issue here was whether Mr. Jones’ right to be free from excessive force, in the circumstances of his case, was clearly established. The Fourth Circuit pointed to two facts that a jury could find that would separately highlight Mr. Jones’ right to be free from excessive force: First, “Jones, although armed, had been secured by the officers immediately before he was released and shot.” Second, “Jones . . . was incapacitated at the time he was shot.” Accordingly, the officers were not entitled to summary judgment on qualified immunity.
The Fourth Circuit’s decision is an important limitation on the scope of qualified immunity. Federal courts have applied qualified immunity as a broad protection for law enforcement officers in many cases, drawing significant criticism. The day before the Fourth Circuit ruled in Mr. Jones’ case, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill has since passed the House and moved on to the Senate. As part of a sweeping law enforcement reform initiative, the bill would eliminate qualified immunity altogether. But even without legislation, the Fourth Circuit’s decision recognizes that police immunity is not absolute. As the court explained, to use qualified immunity to protect the officers from trial in this case “would signal absolute immunity for fear-based use of deadly force, which we cannot accept.”
The Fourth Circuit also acknowledged that this case is part of a larger issue of black citizens dying at the hands of police, mentioning George Floyd and Michael Brown by name. The court wrote: “Although we recognize that our police officers are often asked to make split-second decisions, we expect them to do so with respect for the dignity and worth of black lives.”
Since the Fourth Circuit issued its opinion, the parties have indicated that they intend to seek settlement, so there ultimately may be no trial in this case. This also would mean that the Supreme Court will not review the decision and it will remain the law on qualified immunity for law enforcement in this circuit.