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Showing posts with label qualified immunity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label qualified immunity. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Family in fatal police shooting demands transparency

Fall River Police Department
Photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel (CC BY-SA 4.0)
At a rally in Fall River, Mass., on January 15, the family of Anthony Harden, who was killed by police in November, demanded transparency in the investigation into the shooting.

News reports state that Harden, 30, became involved in a physical altercation with two police officers trying to arrest him at his home.  Harden was confined to the home with a GPS bracelet while charges were pending in an assault case, WBZ reported in December.  According to police, Harden repeatedly stabbed at one of the officers with a metal object, possibly a steak knife, and the other officer shot and killed him.

Bristol County District Attorney (DA) Thomas M. Quinn III investigated and announced in December that police had complied with the department use-of-force policy, WBZ reported.  But the family has not yet seen the full record of the investigation, the Fall River Herald News reported after the "Justice for Anthony" rally on Saturday, and the family alleges inconsistencies between a private autopsy and the DA's conclusion.

In light of the police accountability movement that erupted in recent years in the United States, my Freedom of Information (FOI) Law seminar in the fall semester took up law enforcement transparency as a special topic.  Sifting the voluminous writing on police accountability in scholarly, NGO, and popular literature, I found, probably unsurprisingly, that lack of transparency is often a volatile fuel of misunderstanding and vehement distrust between people and police in these matters.  Worse, it doesn't always have to be.

At risk of generalizing to the detriment of the many, many police officers and departments that uphold the law with integrity, there remains the conventional wisdom that police are notorious for resistance to transparency.  My own youthful interest in FOI law was spurred by, and, in fact, a factor in my decision to go to law school in the 1990s was, frustration dealing with the Rockbridge County Sheriff's Office when I was a student journalist in Virginia.  

FOI "audits," occasionally carried out by media and NGOs to test state open records compliance, invariably test police, because a characteristic reluctance to comply with the law, ironically, juxtaposes so sharply with the urgent life and liberty interests of persons subject to police power.  The classic tension in this vein is nicely encapsulated by Amy Sherrill's report on police compliance for a 1999 Arkansas audit.  The piece might as well have been written yesterday; secrecy in policing is a persistent devil.

For my October class, besides some introductory material such as the law enforcement exemption in the federal FOI Act (FOIA) (subpart (b)(7)), after which the states have modeled many statutory open records exemptions, I assigned:

  • State ex rel. Standifer v. City of Cleveland, 2021 Ohio 3100 (Ct. App. Sept. 3, 2021);
  • Emanuel Powell, Unlawful Silence: St. Louis Families’ Fight for Records After the Killing of a Loved One by Police, 57 Am. Crim. L. Rev. 65 (2020); and
  • Somebody: Police, The Intercept (Apr. 14, 2020) (podcast ep. 3).

There is so much to unpack on this topic that I had to be judicious.  The Standifer case, arising from an investigation into police violence in Connecticut, frames the subject with First Amendment access implications and the balance between police transparency and the rights of persons named in police records, including police officers themselves.

I can't say enough about the Powell article.  An attorney with ArchCity Defenders, Emanuel Powell related a personal and powerful narrative with a well informed and reasoned call for reform.

The entirety of The Intercept podcast, "Somebody" season, is worth the time.  For this class, I chose the "Police" episode, especially for its audio recordings of a mourning mother, Shapearl Wells, desperately seeking answers in the death of her son, and what she faces with police who are sometimes understanding but more often defensive, guarded, and harsh with her.  The audio medium demonstrates, in a way a cold transcript could not, the communicative disconnect between Wells and police, and the insult, however unintended, of unnecessary opacity upon an already tragic injury.  Somebody was a joint project of the Invisible Institute and comes with, especially useful for secondary school, a 10-unit teaching guide

There are some fascinating online clearinghouses on police data, such as NGO Mapping Police Violence and the Invisible Institute's Citizens Police Data Project, the latter focusing on Chicago, having begun as a collaboration with the University of Chicago.  The annual program of the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC) in fall 2021 featured informative sessions on police transparency reform and tracking police misconduct records (latter trailer only).  Tomorrow, I plan to attend virtually a plenary panel of the Communications Law Forum of the American Bar Association, "Racial Injustice Exposed on Camera: Police Transparency and Government Access in a Viral World."

I am open to persuasion on the basis of what I might not know about the investigation into Harden's death.  But on the face of it, I see no reason at this point for withholding investigative records, especially the autopsy.  Law enforcement authorities sometimes fear record release because it might compromise the public's position in seemingly inevitable litigation.  But discovery will bring the evidence to light anyway, and public entities shouldn't get to hold their cards tightly when accountability for lost life is at stake.

It's especially troubling that on the Bristol County DA website, there is, at the time of this writing, not a single mention of Anthony Harden.   The last two press releases from the office, before and after announcement of the conclusion in the Harden investigation, regard sentencing in other matters, touting the DA's success.  The 11-page report on the Harden matter, described by The Herald News, I cannot find online, not at the DA's site, nor from the State Police Detective Unit that conducted the investigation.

So one might understand how the Harden family, and families similarly situation around the country, might worry that the political heads of law enforcement are concerned more with reelection than with justice.  Transparency would not necessarily solve all ills, but it might diffuse tension and enhance public confidence by some measure.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Abolition of police qualified immunity in Colorado, accountable development lead in FOI Summit topics

Transparency and accountability in contexts including police reform and economic development were on the agenda at the (virtual) annual summit (#FOIsummit) of the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC) late last week.  The conference continues on Tuesday and Wednesday this week.

Rep. Herod
The most provocative panel was on police reform, focusing on California, Colorado, and New York.  Colorado State Rep. Leslie Herod spoke with conviction about the raft of reforms signed into law in Colorado on Juneteenth 2020.  Included was the state's landmark elimination of qualified immunity for police.  Herod explained that the 2020 protest movement sparked an opportunity in bipartisan alignment.  The libertarian Cato Institute, she said, would like to have seen qualified immunity for public officials abolished across the board.  Police were a start.  Read more about the Colorado law from Jay Schweikert at Cato and from Russell Berman in The Atlantic.  The session is available on YouTube.

 

The conference's first general session focused on economic development and offered up another compelling colloquy.  Nothing was settled, but advocates on both sides of the transparency problem pressed their best arguments and pulled no punches.  

Greg LeRoy, executive director of D.C.-based NGO Good Jobs First, emphasized the public money at stake in economic development projects and lamented localities' complicity in the empowerment of unaccountable corporate powers over public services.  He had data from one representative development project showing public investment that could not possibly generate a justifiable return.  Such a transaction is none other than a transfer of public wealth to corporate shareholders, he said.  Good Jobs First has model legislation.  

Bryant (RLB)
Meanwhile Ronnie L. Bryant, principal of consulting firm Ronnie L. Bryant, LLC, pleaded passionately that troubled urban centers throughout America, and the people living in them, don't stand a chance at economic opportunity without offering incentives to private investors.  As moderator Dalia Thornton wrangled the pair to common ground, Bryant proved willing to guarantee transparency before and after negotiation on a deal, but not during.

Caught in the crossfire, Albuquerque, N.M., chief administrative officer Sarita Nair has worked previously on both sides of the divide, and now, she said, is the policymaker having to balance priorities.  I agreed with her sentiment recognizing that, at least, we've come a long way from the bad ol' days of heck-no, everything's-a-trade-secret FOIA exemption.


Other conference topics include access to protected health information during the pandemic and virtual public meetings.  Look for more video replays on the NFOIC YouTube channel.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Public officials must know religious freedom gets strict scrutiny, so lose qualified immunity in civil rights case over church access

In a civil rights case involving the freedom of religion, the Massachusetts Appeals Court today denied qualified immunity to public officials who prevented the employee-plaintiff from going to church for Christmas, even without a plain prior case on similar facts.  The decision has important implications across the field of qualified immunity and "constitutional tort," because civil rights plaintiffs routinely claim violations of fundamental rights that officials should know trigger strict scrutiny in constitutional law.

St. Michael's Chapel at Chelsea Soldiers' Home
By Randall Armor, Boston's Hidden Sacred Spaces (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
Teresa Krupien was working at the Soldiers' Home in Chelsea, a veterans' healthcare facility.  Another employee reported that Krupien injured the other's wrist when the two were moving a patient into a wheelchair.  After investigation, and upon mixed conclusions among officials, Krupien was issued a "stay-away directive," barring her from the home premises.  Krupien promptly informed officials that the directive would prevent her from attending Christmas services at the chapel, her "spiritual home," and alleged in her civil rights complaint that the directive in sum barred her from church services for 37 days.  Officials for that time refused to modify the directive.

The trial court dismissed claims under the Massachusetts civil rights act on grounds of qualified immunity, and the Appeals Court reversed.  Qualified immunity pertains when (1) a plaintiff complains of a public official's violation of statutory or constitutional rights, (2) the plaintiff's right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation, and (3) a reasonable person in the shoes of the defendant would have understood that plaintiff's rights were clearly violated.  Qualified immunity is an important defense in the law of "constitutional tort," because torts with public-official defendants usually must rise to the level of civil rights violations in order to overcome sovereign immunity, which is absolute unless waived.

The argument in qualified immunity usually centers on the second element, with an assist from the third, the two forming something like a "reasonable belief" test.  Public officials, who bear the burden of proof of immunity, invariably argue that they were clueless about any clear violation because never before have the courts had a case quite like this one.  Plaintiffs invariably respond by saying that of course this has never happened before, but come on, a lot of cases just like this have happened.  Where element two is hard on plaintiffs with its clarity requirement, element three gives plaintiffs an assist by testing officials' denial objectively.  Many a commentator has noted that the odd yet defensible effect of this rule is to give public officials a pass on a kind of civil rights offense once--but only once.

True to form, defendants here argued that no precedent provided clear guidance to officials on how to handle Krupien's desire to go to church.  Nevertheless, the court opined, ample precedents demonstrate that struct scrutiny applies to claims of free religious exercise.  And strict scrutiny, a public official should know, tests for narrow tailoring to achieve a legitimate state interest.  Officials here had no evidence that Krupien's attendance at church would jeopardize anyone's safety.  It would have been a simple matter to narrow the order and let her attend worship services.

Judge Posner at Harvard Law
By chensiyuan (CC BY-SA-2.5)

The appeals court pointed to an oft-cited lamentation of renowned jurist, sometimes-"consummate ass," advocate-for-the-downtrodden-whilst-nĂ©-Circuit-Judge Richard Posner, in which he pointed out that the lack of case law spelling out the impermissibility of selling a child into slavery cannot mean that a defendant gets one free pass to do so.  Wrote Judge Posner in full:
Our job is the humbler one [than Congress's, in extending or abolishing immunity] of applying the immunity doctrine. We begin with the elementary proposition that it would be improper to deny immunity to a particular defendant on the ground that his conduct could be subsumed under some principle of liability in force when he acted. That approach would shrink immunity to trivial dimensions, since it is always possible to find a principle of comprehensive generality (such as "due process of law"). But the immunity doctrine as it has evolved goes much further than this to protect public officers. It is not enough, to justify denying immunity, that liability in a particular constellation of facts could have been, or even that it was, predicted from existing rules and decisions, even though law, as Holmes famously remarked, is a prediction of what courts will do faced with a particular set of facts. (Maybe it is more than that, but it is at least that.) Liability in that particular set must have been established at the time the defendant acted.

It begins to seem as if to survive a motion to dismiss a suit on grounds of immunity the plaintiff must be able to point to a previous case that differs only trivially from his case. But this cannot be right. The easiest cases don't even arise. There has never been a section 1983 case accusing welfare officials of selling foster children into slavery; it does not follow that if such a case arose, the officials would be immune from damages liability because no previous case had found liability in those circumstances.

Judge Henry
(Ballotpedia)
Murphy ex rel. K.H. v. Morgan, 914 F.2d 846, 851 (7th Cir. 1990) (paragraph break added).  The Massachusetts Appeals Court here sought to fine-tune that balance between the general principle, religious freedom, and the specific distinction between one strict-scrutiny case and the next.

The case is Krupien v. Ritcey, No. AC 17-P-870 (Sept. 26, 2018).  The opinion was authored by Associate Justice Vickie L. Henry.  A graduate of Wellesley College and Boston University Law, Judge Henry left a lucrative commercial litigation practice with Foley Hogg in 2011 to serve as senior staff attorney and youth initiative director for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD).  In that capacity, she appeared in the consolidated cases that became Obergefell v. Hodges (U.S. 2015), establishing the federal constitutional right of gay marriage.  Judge Henry was appointed to the bench by Governor Baker in 2015.