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Brosseau v. Haugen - 543 U.S. 194, 125 S. Ct. 596 (2004)

Rule:

Qualified immunity shields an officer from suit when she makes a decision that, even if constitutionally deficient, reasonably misapprehends the law governing the circumstances she confronted. Qualified immunity operates to protect officers from the sometimes hazy border between excessive and acceptable force. Because the focus is on whether the officer had fair notice that her conduct was unlawful, reasonableness is judged against the backdrop of the law at the time of the conduct. If the law at that time did not clearly establish that the officer's conduct would violate the Constitution, the officer should not be subject to liability or, indeed, even the burdens of litigation.

Facts:

On February 21, 1999, Officer Rochelle Brosseau, a member of the Puyallup, Washington, Police Department, shot Kenneth Haugen in the back as he was attempting to flee from law-enforcement authorities in a motor vehicle. Haugen subsequently filed an action in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington. Haugen, which included a claim under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 against Brosseau, alleging that the shooting had constituted excessive force in violation of Haugen’s federal constitutional rights. The District Court granted summary judgment to Brosseau, finding that the police officer was entitled to qualified immunity from the § 1983 claim. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in reversing in pertinent part and in ordering a remand, expressed the view that summary judgment should not have been granted to Brosseau with respect to the § 1983 claim, for, when the evidence was construed in the light most favorable to Haugen, the officer's alleged use of deadly force had violated the Constitution's Fourth Amendment; and then-clearly-established law, as set forth in a 1985 Supreme Court case, Tennessee v. Garner, that had discussed the use of deadly force. The United States Supreme Court granted the police officer's petition for the writ of certiorari requesting review.

Issue:

Was a police officer, who shot plaintiff in the back while he was fleeing, entitled to qualified immunity from a plaintiff's civil rights claim under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The United States Supreme Court reversed the decision of the appellate court, and held that the officer was entitled to qualified immunity from the individual's § 1983 claim. According to the Court, even if the material facts were construed in a light most favorable to the individual—and regardless of whether the officer’s alleged conduct had violated the individual’s Fourth Amendment rights—the cases decided as of that time did not clearly establish that the officer’s alleged conduct had violated the individual’s Fourth Amendment rights.

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