U.S. Supreme Court holds officer entitled to qualified immunity for shooting suspect after arriving late to an altercation with other officers

RAY WHITE, ET AL. v. DANIEL T. PAULY, No.16-67 (U.S. January 9, 2017)

 This is an excessive force, police shooting case where the United States Supreme Court granted an officer’s qualified immunity defense.

Through a serious of events, three officers became involved in an incident which started with a road rage encounter between motorists. While Officers  Mariscal and Truesdale  left the roadway to confront a suspect (Daniel Pauly) who had left the scene, Officer White remained behind in case the suspect returned. Officer White would later be called to assist Officer’s Mariscal and Truesday at the home of the Pauly brothers. The Court went into detail about how Officers Mariscal and Truesday tracked down the Pauly brothers at a location and had approached the house with caution. The end result of the description is the Pauly brothers presented evidence they did not hear Officer’s Mariscal and Truesdale identify themselves and thought trespassers were trying to enter their house. The confrontation escalated, but had not resulted in gunfire… yet. As Officer White arrived on scene, he witnessed Officer’s Mariscal and Truesdale under cover, heard someone he did not know yell from the house “[w]e have guns” and saw someone point a weapon in his direction (i.e. Samuel Pauly) from the house.  Officer Mariscal fired a shot which missed, but two to three seconds later Officer White shot and killed Samuel Pauly.  The trial court and 10th Court of Appeals denied his qualified immunity defense.

The U.S. Supreme Court first noted that it must examine the facts as they were known to Officer White at the time, not any other evidence of facts which may have occurred but which he was unaware. Qualified immunity attaches when an official’s conduct “does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”  It protects “‘all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.’”  The Court reiterated the longstanding principle that “clearly established law” should not be defined “at a high level of generality.”  It must be “particularized” to the facts of the case. Clearly established federal law does not prohibit a reasonable officer who arrives late to an ongoing police action in circumstances like this from assuming that proper procedures, such as officer identification, have already been followed. No settled Fourth Amendment principle requires that officer to second-guess the earlier steps already taken by his or her fellow officers in instances like the one White confronted here.  As a result, the trial court and court of appeals improperly analyzed the qualified immunity defense. The order of denial was vacated, but the case was remanded.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. This is a per curiam opinion. However, Justice Ginsburg concurred on the understanding that the order does not foreclose the denial of summary judgment to Officers Truesdale and Mariscal after analysis. She believes fact questions may exist as to their entitlement to qualified immunity.