Gov't Official with NO Police Authority Detained Drivers, Granted Qualified Immunity
Do you think anyone who works for the government—not just the police—should be able to pull you over and detain you?
And if a government employee who was never granted police powers assumes these powers unilaterally and clearly violates your constitutional rights, should you be able to hold them to account? Or should they be allowed to get off scot-free through “qualified immunity” merely because they work for the government?
Across the nation, government officials are routinely exceeding their authority and violating the rights of ordinary Americans but are escaping accountability because of the court-created doctrine of qualified immunity. As a result, citizens have been beaten in unprovoked attacks, detained illegally, and even killed by government workers. But the victims and their families have been denied their day in court to hold these bad actors accountable because courts across the nation—following the lead of the U.S. Supreme Court—refuse to enforce constitutional limits on government officials who, they say, are shielded by qualified immunity.
When the U.S. Supreme Court created qualified immunity, it said it was balancing “two evils.” On the one hand, the Court conceded that granting qualified immunity would sometimes leave people without a remedy when government employees violated their rights. On the other hand, if suits were broadly allowed, those tasked with performing government jobs could be afraid to execute these tasks to the best of their abilities.
Qualified immunity was the Court’s attempt to get this balance right. It provided government officials with a protection from lawsuits, but only if these officials were executing the duties prescribed to them by law. In other words, immunity would be available only in suits “arising from actions within the scope of an official’s duties.”
If there is one thing that proponents and opponents of qualified immunity agreed on, this was it: A government official’s ability to claim qualified immunity could be raised only in in defense of their actions while doing their job; they couldn’t receive qualified immunity when their actions far exceed any reasonable interpretation of their authority.
But this baseline premise is no longer the case.
Several months ago, the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals granted qualified immunity to a county engineer who acted like a modern-day “Dwight Schrute” from the TV show “The Office.” Despite having no authority whatsoever to act like a police officer, this engineer pretended to be a traffic cop by pulling over two trucks traveling peacefully on a highway and detaining the drivers for three hours. He then called a local sheriff’s office, tribal police, and state troopers, asking them all to come and ticket the drivers because they were over a weight limit that he had made up less than an hour before. When state troopers finally arrived, they ticketed one driver but dismissed the ticket the following day.
In the end, the engineer unconstitutionally detained the drivers and their trucks and forced the police to waste valuable time. But for some reason, the court granted qualified immunity to the county engineer, who has no business performing traffic stops, for his unlawful detention of the drivers.
The Eighth Circuit’s decision runs in the face of the Supreme Court’s precedent on qualified immunity. It is also inconsistent with this nation’s historical practices. To ensure that rogue agents are not able to cloak themselves in an unjustified immunity, the Institute for Justice (“IJ”) now represents the owner of the trucks (Central Specialties, Inc., “CSI”) in seeking Supreme Court review of the Eighth Circuit’s decision granting qualified immunity to the county engineer. This case is part of IJ’s Project on Immunity and Accountability, which is devoted to the simple idea that government officials are not above the rules; if citizens must follow the law, then government must follow the Constitution.