March/April 2021 Issue
Also in this issue: Local Governments Need to Plan for COVID Relief Funds Under the American Rescue Plan Act | Court of Appeals Upholds Rezoning as Consistent With Comprehensive Plan | Wisconsin Supreme Court Affirms Subdivision Authority as Separate and Distinct From Zoning Authority, Even Within Areas Subject to Shoreland Zoning
Is the United States Supreme Court Signaling a Change in Its Treatment of Qualified Immunity?
Kathryn A. Harrell | 04.01.21
Trent Taylor was a Texas prisoner who entered a psychiatric unit for medical attention following a suicide attempt. Instead of providing treatment, prison officials stripped Mr. Taylor of his clothing, including his underwear, and placed him in a cell where almost every surface — including the floor, ceiling, windows, and walls — was covered in “massive amounts” of human feces belonging to previous occupants. Mr. Taylor was unable to eat because he feared that any food in the cell would become contaminated, and feces “packed inside the water faucet” prevented him from drinking water for days. The prison officials were well aware of these conditions, and at one point laughed that Mr. Taylor was “going to have a long weekend.”
Mr. Taylor was then moved to another cell, which was cold and had no toilet, water fountain, or furniture. It had only a drain on the floor, which was clogged, leaving a standing pool of raw sewage in the cell. Because the cell lacked a bunk, Mr. Taylor had to sleep on the floor, naked and soaked in sewage, with only a suicide blanket for warmth. He was kept in this cell for three days and never allowed to use a restroom. He attempted to avoid urinating on himself, but he eventually involuntarily did so. As a result of holding his urine for an extended period, Mr. Taylor developed a distended bladder requiring catheterization.
Mr. Taylor sued multiple correction officers, alleging violations of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Taylor v. Riojas, 141 S. Ct. 52 (2020). Both the district court and the United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit held in favor of the correction officers based on qualified immunity, finding that they could not be liable because they did not violate a clearly established law that every reasonable officer should know.
By way of background, all governmental officers who are sued for monetary damages for alleged Constitutional violations have an immunity defense. Judges, legislators and prosecutors, for example, are protected by absolute immunity for conduct performed within the scope of their employment. Other governmental officials, such as corrections officers, police officers and teachers, are generally shielded from civil liability by qualified immunity when performing discretionary functions, unless their conduct violates a clearly established constitutional right such that every reasonable official would have known that his or her conduct was unlawful.
The Supreme Court has given broad protection to law enforcement personnel under qualified immunity. It has emphasized the need for plaintiffs to show a case on point in order to overcome this immunity. While cases need not be directly on point, existing case law must put the constitutional questions “beyond debate.” Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 741 (2011). “The precedent must be clear enough that every reasonable official would interpret it to establish the particular rule the plaintiff seeks to apply.” District of Columbia v. Wesby, 138 S. Ct. 577 (2018). Put simply, qualified immunity protects “all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341 (1986).
In the last decade, the Supreme Court has repeatedly overturned lower court refusals to grant police officers qualified immunity. It has been criticized for doing this. Indeed, between 1982 and 2020, the Supreme Court found that officers were protected by qualified immunity in 28 of the 30 cases where the issue was raised.
It was against this background that Mr. Taylor appealed his case to the United States Supreme Court. In a 7 – 1 decision with Justice Thomas dissenting, the Supreme Court rejected the officers’ claim of qualified immunity. In doing so, it ignored past precedent, holding that no case on point is required in order to hold a government officer liable. Rather, it held that the officers were not protected by qualified immunity because “no reasonable correctional officer could have concluded that, under the extreme circumstances of this case, it was constitutionally permissible to house Taylor in such deplorably unsanitary conditions for such an extended period of time.” The Court said “[c]onfronted with the particularly egregious facts of this case, any reasonable officer should have realized that Taylor’s conditions of confinement offended the Constitution.”
Whether the Court’s decision was fueled by the political climate or is limited to the egregious facts of the Taylor case remains to be seen.
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