Thanks to qualified immunity, an elderly Georgia man has no recourse after Henry County Sheriff’s Office deputies mistakenly broke into his home during a no-knock raid.
Onree Norris, 81, was watching TV when members of the Special Response Team battered down his door and tossed in a flash-bang grenade. The deputies were serving a warrant. The problem was they had the wrong house. The warrant was for the house next door. According to 11 Alive, the warrant included a detailed description of the target house.
“The warrant described an off-white house with a black roof. Norris’ house is yellow with a gray roof. The houses even had separate driveways, addresses, and mailboxes.”
Norris told reporters deputies kicked down four doors before they found him standing in his hallway.
“Got to the hallway, they was all over me,” Norris said. “Grabbed my arm, twisted behind my back, and handcuffed me.”
He said the whole incident “scared me to death.”
Deputies were wearing helmet-cams, but turned them off one-by-one once they realized their mistake. Norris said deputies told him they would release him only if he agreed to sign a piece of paper. “So I signed my name on there. I didn’t get a chance to read it.”
Deputies later repaired the door but the Henry County Sheriff’s Office refused to provide any additional compensation.
Norris sued for damages in federal court based on the fact that deputies entered his home without a warrant. U.S. District Judge Michael Brown ruled that the deputies have qualified immunity and dismissed the case.
Onree has appealed.
In qualified immunity analysis, judges must determine if it is “clearly established” that the specific use of force in a specific instance was unconstitutional. If not, the officer escapes liability. This standard is nearly impossible to meet.
Ilan Wurman explained the test in a paper titled Qualified Immunity and Statutory Interpretation published by the Seattle Law Review. He wrote that the “clearly established” test erects an almost insurmountable hurdle to those trying to prove excessive force or a violation of their rights.
“The qualified immunity test poses an almost insurmountable analytical problem—the permutations are infinite. A given situation is rarely exactly like another. There will always be sufficient distinguishing facts to decide that there was no clearly established law.”
Federal Courts, Qualified Immunity and the Incorporation Doctrine
This is yet another example of a case that should never have gone to federal court in the first place. Were it not for the dubious “incorporation doctrine” made up by the Supreme Crout based on the 14th Amendment that purportedly empowers the federal government to apply the Bill of Rights to the states, this case would have been litigated in state court under the bill of rights in the Georgia constitution.
Furthermore, were it not for the 14th Amendment and the incorporation doctrine, there would be no federal qualified immunity to shield cops like McClendon from the legal consequences of their actions.
Because Americans are conditioned to make everything into a federal case, people typically sue police for using excessive force or other types of misconduct through the federal court system under the U.S. Bill of Rights. But through a series of Supreme Court opinions, federal courts created a qualified immunity defense out of thin air. As we have seen over and over, the qualified immunity makes it nearly impossible to hold police officers accountable for their actions.
Through the incorporation doctrine and the application of the federal Bill of Rights to state and local governments, this system protects police officers in every city, county and state in the U.S. — from Honolulu, Hawaii to West Quoddy Head, Maine.
A decentralized system where cases were heard under state law and state constitutions would undoubtedly have problems. Some states would probably extend almost complete protection to law enforcement officers just like the federalized system. But surely some would be better. In fact, Colorado recently passed a law creating a state cause of action in state courts to sue police officers when they infringe on “any constitutional right secured by the bill of rights of the Colorado constitution.” The law specifically states that qualified immunity “is not a defense” to such civil action.
Since federal judges always defer to precedent, victims of police abuse have virtually no chance of prevailing in court. Even in the clearest cases of misconduct, federal judges will defer to the qualified immunity defense. It’s a prime example of government protecting its own.