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Supreme Court Upholds Law Enforcement's Qualified Immunity

In two decisions handed down Tuesday, the Supreme Court made it more difficult for citizens to sue law enforcement officers for their conduct. Both decisions were unanimous.

The central issue in both was the doctrine of "qualified immunity," which shields public officials from being sued for actions that fall short of violating a clearly established statutory or constitutional right.

Perhaps the more dire case involved a high-speed chase and the death of the driver and passenger at police hands. In what the court conceded were tragic circumstances, West Memphis, Ark., police pulled over Donald Rickard for driving with only one functioning headlight. When police asked him to step out of the car, he instead floored the gas pedal, swerving through traffic at high speeds.

Minutes later, he spun out in a parking lot, and again sought to take off, narrowly missing a police officer. Police fired three shots at the fleeing Rickard, but he again did not stop. When he finally crashed the car, police fired 12 shots into the vehicle, resulting in the death of Rickard and his passenger.

Rickard's daughter sued police for using excessive force. In an opinion authored by Justice Samuel Alito, the court concluded that the use of deadly force to end a dangerous high-speed chase was constitutional and did not violate any statute. As a result, the police were immune from suit.

A second qualified immunity case arose from a 2004 protest in Jacksonville, Ore., against then-President George W. Bush.

On Oct. 14, 2004, two groups of demonstrators, one supportive of the president and the other critical, assembled along the route they anticipated the president's motorcade would take after an event. One group was on one side of the street; the other group, on the opposite side.

When the president detoured to have dinner on an outdoor patio on the same block, that choice put him in sight — and in weapons range — of the group on the side of the street nearest him, the anti-Bush group.

The Secret Service agents directed local police to relocate the anti-Bush group, which ended up one block farther from the president than the supporters. When the president departed, the supporters could be seen and heard from the motorcade, but the protesters were neither visible nor audible.

The protesters sued the Secret Service agents for violating their First Amendment rights, arguing they were treated differently because of their anti-Bush views. They claimed that they had been denied "equal access to the president" and pushed out of a public place based only on the content of their speech, in order to "insulate the president from their message."

The Supreme Court, however, rejected that contention, declaring the agents immune from lawsuits in cases like this. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg emphasized that the court has long erred on the side of caution where presidential safety is concerned. "This court has recognized the overwhelming importance of safeguarding the president," she wrote.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.
Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza