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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. A Government official's conduct violates clearly established law when, at the time of the challenged conduct, the contours of a right are sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.
After Plaintiff-Appellee Levi Frasier video-recorded Denver police officers using force while arresting an uncooperative suspect in public, one of the officers followed Mr. Frasier to his car and asked him to provide a statement on what he had seen and to turn over his video of the arrest. Mr. Frasier at first denied having filmed the arrest but ultimately showed the officer the tablet computer on which he had video-recorded it. He did so after an officer, Defendant-Appellant Christopher L. Evans, and four other members of the Denver Police Department, Officer Charles C. Jones, Detective John H. Bauer, Sergeant Russell Bothwell, and Officer John Robledo—the other Defendants-Appellants—surrounded him and allegedly pressured him to comply with their demand to turn over the video. Mr. Frasier contends that when he showed Officer Evans the tablet computer, the officer grabbed it from his hands and searched it for the video without his consent. Mr. Frasier has sued the five officers under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming they violated and conspired to violate his constitutional rights under both the First and Fourth Amendments. The officers moved the district court for summary judgment on qualified-immunity grounds, and the court granted them qualified immunity on some of Mr. Frasier's claims but denied it to them on others. The district court held that Officer Evans had reasonable suspicion to detain Mr. Frasier throughout their twenty-three-minute encounter because Mr. Frasier lied to him about filming the arrest, thereby potentially violating Colorado Revised Statutes § 18-8-111, which proscribes knowingly making certain false statements to the police. The court, therefore, granted Officer Evans qualified immunity on [**4] Mr. Frasier's claim that the officer illegally detained him in violation of the Fourth Amendment, and Mr. Frasier did not oppose granting summary judgment to the other officers on this claim. Officer Evans did not move for summary judgment on Mr. Frasier's claim that he illegally searched Mr. Frasier's tablet computer in violation of the Fourth Amendment, but the other officers did. The court granted them summary judgment because the record did not support a finding that they personally participated in the alleged search. The district court, however, denied the officers qualified immunity on Mr. Frasier's First Amendment retaliation claim even though it had concluded that Mr. Frasier did not have a clearly established right to film a public arrest. The court held that the record nonetheless supported a finding that the officers actually knew from their training that people have a First Amendment right to record them in public. And the court ruled that officers are not entitled to qualified immunity when they knowingly violate a plaintiff's rights.
Did the district court err in partially denying qualified immunity with regard to the officers?
The Court has established in Pueblo Neighborhood Health Centers, Inc. v. Losavio that the standard for qualified immunity is wholly objective. An assertion of qualified immunity is properly evaluated under the standard enunciated by the Supreme Court in Harlow v. Fitzgerald. Before Harlow, qualified immunity contained both an objective and a subjective component. Because of its subjective component, qualified immunity was often ineffective in resolving insubstantial suits against government officials before trial. In an attempt to balance the need to preserve an avenue for vindication of constitutional rights with the desire to shield public officials from undue interference in the performance of their duties as a result of baseless claims, the Court adopted an objective test to determine whether the doctrine of qualified immunity applies. When government officials are performing discretionary functions, they will not be held liable for their conduct unless their actions violate "clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." The Court subsequently clarified in Anderson v. Creighton that, whether an official is entitled to qualified immunity under the Harlow standard does not turn on whether he "subjective[ly] belie[ved]" his conduct was lawful, but, rather, on whether "he could, as a matter of law, reasonably have believed that [his conduct] was lawful . . . in light of the clearly established principles governing [it]." Thus, as Anderson makes clear, under Harlow, an officer's "subjective beliefs about [whether his conduct was lawful] are irrelevant." As applied here, it is therefore "irrelevant" whether each officer defendant actually believed—or even in some sense knew—that his conduct violated a statutory or constitutional right—more specifically, the First Amendment. The district court therefore erred in denying the officer defendants qualified immunity regarding Mr. Frasier's First Amendment retaliation claim based on their subjective knowledge of Mr. Frasier's purported First Amendment right to record them on the public street performing their duties.
Further, the district court was wrong to deny the officers qualified immunity based on their knowledge of Mr. Frasier's purported First Amendment rights that they gained from their training. Judicial decisions are the only valid interpretive source of the content of clearly established law; whatever training the officers received concerning the First Amendment was irrelevant to the clearly-established-law inquiry. Indeed, it is beyond peradventure that judicial decisions concretely and authoritatively define the boundaries of permissible conduct in a way that government-employer training never can. Thus, irrespective of the merits of the training that the officer defendants received concerning the First Amendment, it was irrelevant to the clearly-established-law inquiry here. The district court consequently erred in denying the officers qualified immunity based on the actual knowledge that they purportedly gained from such non-judicial sources.