The U.S. Supreme Court recently rejected an appeal over a New Jersey police shooting case involving the controversial legal defense of “qualified immunity” that protects officers from civil litigation, an issue the court has already avoided weighing in on earlier this year.
According to a Reuters report, the court rejected an appeal by the mother of the shooting victim of a lower court’s decision that upheld the officer’s “qualified immunity” – a doctrine that grants police officers defense against civil lawsuits for actions carried out on duty.
Liberal judge Sonia Sotomayor dissented from the decision, thereby denying the case. However, in her dissent, she said that qualified immunity “does not protect an officer who inflicts deadly force on a person who is only a threat to himself.”
The lawsuit regarded the 2011 shooting of Willie Gibbons, a schizophrenic man, by a State Trooper Noah Bartlet after Gibbons pointed a gun at his own head and refused to drop the weapon. Bartlet shot Gibbons twice in the chest before his gun jammed.
The original ruling by the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Bartlet, concluding that although Gibbons was pointing the gun on himself, he was in range to potentially shoot the officer.
Gibbons’ family then filed a civil rights lawsuit against Bartelt and state police seeking monetary damages. While one federal judge handling the lawsuit denied Bartelt qualified immunity, a three-judge panel of the 3rd Circuit then reversed that ruling.
The doctrine of qualified immunity has been a point of controversy since the death of George Floyd this year, with some states such as New York eliminating the practice completely. Critics says it shields officers from accountability for misconduct, while law enforcement professionals argue it is essential for police to make quick decisions in the moment without fear of legal reprisal.
Qualified immunity is applicable in civil lawsuits unless it is “clearly established” that a victims’ statutory or constitutional rights have been violated.
The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case is the second instance this year that they have dodged making a ruling.
In March, the court rejected a lawsuit against police for a 2016 incident in which the defendant, Shase Howse, claimed excessive force was used against him. The original ruling upheld the officers’ qualified immunity and said there was no evidence that constitutional rights were violated.