A Cop Killed a Suicidal Man and Got Qualified Immunity. Justice Sotomayor Isn’t Happy About It.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is reiterating her disdain for qualified immunity—a legal doctrine that protects certain government officials from accountability—decades after the high court legislated it into existence.
In the Court’s orders released Monday, Sotomayor objected to her colleagues’ refusal to hear a plea brought by the family of a man killed by a police officer. The man “never threatened the officer,” Sotomayor notes, and in that moment arguably presented a danger only to himself. The cop got qualified immunity anyway.
“I add only that qualified immunity properly shields police officers from liability when they act reasonably to protect themselves and the public,” she wrote. “It does not protect an officer who inflicts deadly force on a person who is only a threat to himself.”
Though the stereotype is that such decisions are decided along ideological lines, Sotomayor was alone today. She is not alone, however, in her disdain for qualified immunity. Justice Clarence Thomas is the most reliably outspoken detractor.
In April 2011, New Jersey State Police Trooper Noah Bartelt approached Willie Gibbons, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, after he’d just been in an argument with his ex-partner, who had a restraining order against him. Gibbons was pointing a gun at his own temple; Bartelt told Gibbons to drop the weapon. Seconds later, the officer shot him twice, ultimately killing him. It is disputed whether Gibbons ever heard his command or whether the officer gave him enough time to comply.
A suit against the officer originally proceeded past the U.S. District Court for the District of N
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