Law School Case Brief
Henry v. Purnell - 652 F.3d 524 (4th Cir. 2011)
Qualified immunity protects officers who commit constitutional violations but who, in light of clearly established law, could reasonably believe that their actions were lawful. The two-step procedure of Saucier v. Katz asks first whether a constitutional violation occurred and second whether the right violated was clearly established. If an officer did not violate any right, he is hardly in need of any immunity and the analysis ends right then and there.
Without warning, Officer Robert Purnell shot Frederick Henry, an unarmed man who was wanted for misdemeanor failure to pay child support, when he started running away. In the ensuing action brought uner 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983, the parties stipulated that Purnell had intended to use his Taser rather than his gun and the district court granted him summary judgment. Henry appealed, arguing that the district court erred in granting summary judgment to Purnell. Purnell contended that he was rightly granted summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity because the parties stipulated that he mistakenly used his firearm instead of his Taser.
Did the trial court err in granting summary judgment to the police office on the basis of qualified immunity because the parties stipulated that he mistakenly used his firearm instead of his Taser?
The Court held that it was not the honestly of Purnell’s intentions that determined the constitutionality of his conduct but rather it was the objective reasonableness of his actions. There were several facts that Purnell knew or should have known that would have alerted any reasonable officer to the fact that he was holding his firearm, including the location of the weapon, the difference in weight between it and the stun gun, and the lack of a thumb safety. According to the Court, Purnell was not entitled to qualified immunity because the plaintiff could show that a reasonable officer would have realized he was holding a firearm when shooting, and it would have been clear to a reasonable officer that shooting a fleeing, nonthreatening misdemeanant with a firearm was unlawful. In addition, Purnell was not entitled to statutory immunity under the Maryland Tort Claims Act, Md. Code Ann., State Gov't § 12-101 et seq., because a jury could reasonably find that Purnell’s conduct amounted to gross negligence.
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