Ten years ago, a New Jersey state trooper gunned down Willie Gibbons, a mentally ill and suicidal Black man. After a winding road through lower courts, the Gibbons family’s lawsuit against the trooper finally reached the Supreme Court — and on Monday, the court refused to hear it.
The high court sided with a lower federal appeals court that said the trooper, Noah Bartelt, was protected by the doctrine of qualified immunity.
Qualified immunity is a defense put forward by law enforcement and government officials when they face lawsuits seeking monetary damages for alleged civil rights violations. Under existing Supreme Court precedent, an officer cannot be held liable for civil rights violations unless their specific conduct was found to be unconstitutional in a previous, similar case.
Critics of qualified immunity argue that it allows police to bypass laws and not be held accountable for the use of excessive or lethal force. Last year, following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, there was a broad push to end qualified immunity for police officers. In March, the House passed legislation, known as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which among other changes would have ended qualified immunity. But the legislation stalled in the Senate, and was officially declared dead by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) last month.
The last hope for reforming qualified immunity rested with the courts, but this week’s decision by the Supreme Court makes clear there’s not much light at the end of that tunnel either. Along with the Gibbons case, the court rejected 12 other qualified immunity cases this week.
“There is a long line of cases in which the Supreme Court has refused to revisit and reconsider the scope and application of qualified immunity,” said David H. Gans, director of the human rights, civil rights and citizenship program at the Constitutional Accountability Center.
“Despite what that law says, the Supreme Court says police only can be sued if they violate clearly established law,” Gans told HuffPost. “The court has made it harder and harder to show that there has been a violation of clearly established law.”
But one justice dissented from Monday’s decision. Justice Sonia Sotomayor criticized the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, saying it “erred by improperly resolving factual disputes” in Gibbons’ death when it granted qualified immunity to the trooper after a lower court had denied it. Moreover, she argued that qualified immunity “does not protect an officer who inflicts deadly force on a person who is only a threat to himself.”
Gibbons, whom Bartelt fatally shot in May 2011, had gotten into an argument with his girlfriend while they were at her house. She called the police to her home and said that he stopped taking his medication for schizophrenia, according to court documents.
The next day, officers approached Gibbons while he was walking on the side of the road. Gibbons pointed a gun to his own head.
Bartelt then fired several shots, eventually killing Gibbons.
“It is undisputed that the officer who shot him knew that Gibbons suffered from a mental illness and that he was holding a gun to his own temple. It is also undisputed that Gibbons never threatened the officer in any way and that the encounter was over within seconds, leaving Gibbons fatally wounded,” Sotomayor wrote.
The decision comes just months after a jury convicted ex-Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin of murder charges in the killing of George Floyd, and a year after a flood of nationwide protests called for justice in the deaths of Black people by the hands of police officers in America.
The court could yet revisit qualified immunity soon: Though it rejected 12 cases, it didn’t act on a few other appeals, and is expected to do so in the coming weeks.