A Prison Guard Who Pepper-Sprayed an Inmate Without Provocation Got Qualified Immunity. SCOTUS Disagreed.
The Supreme Court on Monday dealt another blow to qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that shields civil servants from accountability for alleged misconduct.
It’s a stark change from this time last year. In February 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit awarded qualified immunity to a correctional officer who pepper-sprayed an inmate without provocation. It was that decision—McCoy v. Alamu—that the justices reversed yesterday and remanded back to the lower court for reconsideration.
Their move is subtle and went unnoticed by just about every major news outlet. It doesn’t alter the legal doctrine itself. But it does gesture to the lower courts that they should hold state actors to a higher standard—a welcome change in qualified immunity jurisprudence.
The decision invokes another Supreme Court ruling in a recent case: Taylor v. Riojas, in which several prison guards were originally given qualified immunity, also by the 5th Circuit, after locking a naked inmate in two squalid cells, one covered with “massive amounts” of human feces and the other filled with raw sewage. In November, the justices reversed that and wrote in an unsigned opinion that “no reasonable officer” would think placing an inmate in such conditions was constitutional. It was the first time the high court had rejected a qualified immunity defense since 2004.
In discussions around qualified immunity, reasonable is the operative word. Would a reasonable state actor know that their conduct was wrong? To find out, courts are to consider two prongs: whether an offense was unconstitutional, and whether or not it was “clearly established” in a previous court precedent that said the offense was unconstitutional, such that the offending party would have notice
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