Reasonableness as a Defense
As previously noted, in Graham v Connor, the United States Supreme Court indicated that in excessive force cases brought under the Fourth Amendment, the proper focus is on the reasonableness of the officer’s actions. Graham, supra, at 396. As the Court directed, this reasonableness requirement is to be determined by the “facts and circumstances of each particular case, including the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.” Id.
Further, the Court instructed that the focus is not on the individual motivations of the officer, but rather must be viewed with a detached, objective view of the reasonableness of the officer’s actions. Id. Because of this focus on reasonableness, most, if not all, defendants in such actions can be expected to assert that their respective actions were reasonable in light of the situation.
Qualified Immunity as a Defense to Police Misconduct Claims
In addition to the focus on reasonableness, the law enforcement officer may assert a claim of qualified immunity. “Government officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Harlow v Fitzgerald, 457 US 800, 818 (1982).
Initially, a number of courts held that a law enforcement officer could not be entitled to qualified immunity in Fourth Amendment excessive force claims, because if the officer’s actions were reasonable, he was not liable to begin with, and thus a qualified immunity review was unnecessary. Dunigan v Noble, 390 F3d 486, (6th Cir, 2004).
Conversely, should the officer’s actions be unreasonable, he would not be entitled to qualified immunity because he must have violated a clearly established constitutional right, given that the text of the Fourth Amendment specifically mentions “unreasonable search and seizure.” Id.
Despite these initial holdings, the United States Supreme Court has adopted the view that these two concepts are not intertwined and each are indeed entitled to their own distinct analysis. Saucier v Katz, 533 US 194, 204 (2001). In Saucier, the Court found that it is entirely possible that an officer could be mistaken as to the amount of force necessary for the particular scenario, yet be reasonable with that application of force, and thus could escape liability for his or her actions.