Law School Case Brief
Saucier v. Katz - 533 U.S. 194, 121 S. Ct. 2151 (2001)
A court required to rule upon the qualified immunity issue must consider this threshold question: Taken in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury, do the facts alleged show the officer's conduct violated a constitutional right? This must be the initial inquiry.
Respondent Katz, president of respondent In Defense of Animals, filed a suit pursuant to Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388, 29 L. Ed. 2d 619, 91 S. Ct. 1999, against, inter alios, petitioner Saucier, a military policeman. Katz alleged, among other things, that Saucier had violated his Fourth Amendment rights by using excessive force in arresting him while he protested during Vice President Gore's speech at a San Francisco army base. The District Court declined to grant Saucier summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds. In affirming, the Ninth Circuit made a two-part qualified immunity inquiry. First, it found that the law governing Saucier's conduct was clearly established when the incident occurred. It therefore moved to a second step: to determine if a reasonable officer could have believed, in light of the clearly established law, that his conduct was lawful. The court concluded that this step and the merits of a Fourth Amendment excessive force claim are identical, since both concern the objective reasonableness of the officer's conduct in light of the circumstances the officer faced at the scene. Thus, it found, summary judgment based on qualified immunity was inappropriate.
Was the officer entitled to qualified immunity?
The Supreme Court of the United States reversed the judgment because the inquiries for qualified immunity and excessive force remained distinct and the officer was entitled to qualified immunity. The initial inquiry should have been whether the facts alleged showed the officer's conduct violated a constitutional right. The next question should have been whether the right was clearly established in the context of the case. In the circumstances presented to the officer, which included the duty to protect the safety and security of the Vice President, there was no clearly established rule prohibiting the officer from acting as he did.
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