U.S. Supreme Court Limits Police Officer Liability
–by Kim Newton
Sources: White v. Pauly, 137 S. Ct. 548 (2017); U.S. Const. amend. IV
Abstract: On January 9, 2017 the Supreme Court unanimously held that an officer’s failure to shout a warning before firing a gunshot in an ongoing confrontation does not constitute a violation of the Fourth Amendment right to be free from the excessive use of force.
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated . . .”
–U.S. Const. Amend. IV
Facts and Procedural History
On a rainy evening near Santa Fe, New Mexico, two women observed a reckless, swerving vehicle driven by Daniel Pauly and called 911. Officers Truesdale and Mariscal responded to the incident first and determined there was insufficient probable cause to arrest Daniel, who had already left the scene. Therefore, the two officers proceeded to the address registered to the license plate, belonging to Daniel and Samuel Pauly. They hoped to “(1) get his [Daniel’s] side of the story, (2) make sure nothing else happened, and (3) find out if he was intoxicated.”
When police arrived, they saw people moving inside the house and found Daniel Pauly’s matching truck parked outside. The brothers heard the officers outside and yelled, “Who are you?” and “What do you want?” The officers responded, “Hey, (expletive), we got you surrounded. Come out or we’re coming in,” followed by “open the door, State Police, open the door.” The Pauly brothers claimed the police never identified themselves and the brothers armed themselves with a handgun and a shotgun.
During the verbal confrontation, Officer White arrived at the scene. He began walking toward the front door when he heard one brother yell, “we have guns.” Officer White then drew his gun and took cover behind a stone wall nearby. Shortly after, Samuel opened the front window and pointed his gun in Officer White’s direction. After Officer Mariscal missed a shot, Officer White shot and killed Samuel.
Samuel Pauly’s estate and the surviving Daniel Pauly sued the officers, arguing the fatal shot violated the Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive use of force. The officers argued they were entitled to qualified immunity because a reasonable person would have known there was no constitutional violation.
The District Court denied the officers’ motion for summary judgment, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed, reasoning that reasonable officers should have known that their conduct would cause the Pauly brothers to defend their home in a manner that could result in the use of deadly force. Furthermore, Officer White arrived to the scene later and only heard “we have guns.” Therefore, the court reasoned that the fatal shot was unreasonable because any reasonable officer would have known a warning was required.
Supreme Court Decision
The Supreme Court vacated the judgment and remanded for further proceedings, holding
“[f]or purposes of qualified immunity, clearly established law should not be defined at a high level of generality. As explained decades ago, the clearly established law must be particularized to the facts of the case. Otherwise, plaintiffs would be able to convert the rule of qualified immunity into a rule of virtually unqualified liability simply by alleging violation of extremely abstract rights.”
The Court reasoned that an officer who arrives late to an ongoing police action could reasonably assume that the proper procedures, such as officer identifications and warnings, had already been followed. For Officer White, the Fourth Amendment did not require him to second-guess the earlier steps of his colleagues. Therefore, there was no violation.
Justice Ginsburg’s Concurrence
Justice Ginsburg wrote a separate concurrence to highlight remaining questions of fact. Namely, whether Officers Truesdale and Mariscal “adequately identified themselves” as police officers; when Officer White arrived at the scene; what he may have witnessed; and whether he had adequate time to identify himself and order Samuel Pauly to drop his weapon before the fatal shot. She cautioned that a different outcome might be required based on evidence suggesting that Officer White was on the scene during the first threats to invade the home.