Supreme Court declines to hear 'qualified immunity' suit over police shooting

The Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a dispute over the fatal police shooting of a schizophrenic man in a case that raised questions about legal barriers to suing government workers for alleged wrongdoing.

The lawsuit was brought by the mother of the victim, Willie Gibbons, who was shot and killed in 2011 by a New Jersey state trooper while Gibbons was holding a gun to his own head. 

A lower federal appeals court last year found that the officer, Noah Bartlet, was entitled to qualified immunity, a controversial legal doctrine that erects a high bar a plaintiff must clear in order to successfully sue government workers for alleged misconduct while on the job.  

ADVERTISEMENT

Qualified immunity broadly shields law enforcement and other government employees from liability unless it’s proven they violated a clearly established constitutional right, presenting a difficult legal barrier. 

In a brief, unsigned order Monday the court turned away an appeal by the victim’s mother, Arlane Gibbons, over a dissent from Justice Sonia SotomayorSonia SotomayorGraham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks Supreme Court grapples with excluding Puerto Rico from federal benefits program Will Supreme Court allow constitutional oversight to be outmaneuvered by Texas abortion law? MORE.

Sotomayor, one of the court’s more liberal justices, said that while the factual record left some key questions unresolved, it was undisputed that the officer knew the victim “suffered from a mental illness and that he was holding a gun to his own temple.”

“I add only that qualified immunity properly shields police officers from liability when they act reasonably to protect themselves and the public,” Sotomayor wrote. “It does not protect an officer who inflicts deadly force on a person who is only a threat to himself.”

A federal district court sided with the victim’s family in a 2017 ruling that found the officer was not entitled to qualified immunity. 

The district judge’s ruling was later reversed in April 2020 by the Philadelphia-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit. The appeals court ruled that Bartlet was entitled to qualified immunity because Gibbons, who ignored Bartlet’s order to drop his gun, was “easily within the range to shoot” Bartlet or the other officer on scene.

ADVERTISEMENT

The appeals court’s ruling for the officer prompted the Gibbons family’s appeal in January to the Supreme Court. 

In dissenting from the court’s denial of Gibbons’ appeal, Sotomayor said the lower appellate court had “erred by improperly resolving factual disputes” in Bartlet’s favor, and overlooked “binding precedent to conclude that he did not violate a clearly established constitutional right.”

Qualified immunity proved to be a major sticking point in bipartisan negotiations over police reform legislation on Capitol Hill, with Democrats seeking to nix the legal shield while Republicans have pushed to preserve it.   

Talks ultimately broke down last month after members of the bipartisan group said the parties were unable to work through their differences.