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Cops Lose Qualified Immunity In 2 Federal Cases, Suggesting ‘Shift’ Toward Accountability

Clouds of tear gas engulf W. Florissant Ave on Aug. 17, 2014.
File photo / Durrie Bouscaren/ St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Clouds of tear gas in Ferguson in August 2014. Journalists who sued the St. Charles County SWAT team after being tear-gassed recently won a key ruling from the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Local law enforcement officers recently lost two key rulings in the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. Legal experts said on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air that the rulings amount to an overdue curbing of the doctrine that protects most police actions from liability.

“These are kind of shifts from the idea that we’re going to give police the benefit of the doubt no matter what, even when they’re outrageous acts,” said Mark Smith, vice chancellor at Washington University and dean for career services.

The doctrine of “qualified immunity” holds that law enforcement officers may not be sued for civil damages “so long as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” In separate cases, the federal appeals court has now found that local officers acted outside that standard.

In the first case, St. Louis County Police officers searched a home with guns drawn after getting complaints that a taxi customer had skipped out on his fare — what the court called a “severe, warrantless search” of a home that turned out to have no connection to the intoxicated fare skipper.

The same court ruled against a St. Charles County SWAT team officer who fired tear gas at Al Jazeera journalists covering the unrest in Ferguson that followed the police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. The court found that the journalists were engaging in actions protected by the First Amendment — and that the officer’s supervisor ordering the shelling was not a valid defense.

Both cases now return to the trial court level.

“Whereas the law has been the same for a long time, this ‘reasonableness’ standard may be changing in our world, and I think that’s a fascinating concept,” said St. Louis lawyer Nicole Gorovsky. “Maybe police officers would have gotten a pass in the past on what is considered reasonable and what is not. We’re now looking a lot more into what is ‘reasonable’ behavior."

Dave Roland, director of litigation at the Freedom Center of Missouri, noted that while the law is federal, different circuits can adopt different standards. The 8th Circuit’s rulings, which cover a swath from Arkansas to Minnesota, as well as Nebraska and the Dakotas, may well advance the reasonableness standard in ways already enjoyed by more liberal circuits.

Roland called the doctrine of qualified immunity “the bane of a public-interest litigator’s existence.”

He added: “I’m always thrilled to see any case where a court finds no qualified immunity. That will always represent a step in the right direction as far as citizens being able to hold their public officials accountable.”

The panel also discussed several Sunshine Law cases, an appeals court ruling in favor of a state representative who blocked constituents on Twitter and the University of Missouri’ssuccessful defense of a regulation that bars employees from keeping firearms in their cars.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.