Seventh Circuit Reiterates Specificity Requirement to Overcome Defense of Qualified Immunity

September 26, 2017

On August 22, 2017, the Seventh Circuit reiterated the long-standing doctrine that qualified immunity cannot be decided at a “high level of generality,” requiring the law to have been clearly established in sufficiently similar circumstances to those facing an officer before finding officers liable for damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In Green v. Newport, Case No. 16-1536 (7th Cir. 2017), the Seventh Circuit reversed a District Court’s denial of qualified immunity for two Milwaukee Police Officers, directing the District Court to enter judgment for the officers on the basis of qualified immunity.

On November 26, 2014, two officers of the Milwaukee Police Department responded to a complaint by an auto parts store that a suspicious person driving a Mercury Grand Marquis had driven around the store’s parking lot five times. The auto parts store had been robbed within the last two months, and a firearm was used in that robbery. The responding officer believed that the behavior exhibited by the vehicle was consistent with “casing” a business prior to a robbery. The officer also knew that the auto parts store would soon close. Upon the officer’s arrival, the driver of the Marquis was outside his vehicle, leaning into the front passenger window of another vehicle. The officer activated his emergency lights, and parked behind the Marquis. The two occupants were told to put up their hands, and the occupant of the other vehicle would only raise one of his hands, keeping the other near his waist. That occupant was frisked, and a firearm was found in his waistband. The two occupants sued the officers for an unreasonable search and seizure.

The District Court denied the officer’s motion for summary judgment on the basis that he was not entitled to qualified immunity because the officer merely relied on a “suspicious person” report to support his reasonable suspicion to conduct a Terry stop of the individuals. The Seventh Circuit reversed, finding that the cases relied upon by the District Court were not sufficiently similar to the circumstances faced by the defendant officer. The Seventh Circuit found that the framing of the issue by the District Court, including the cases that it relied upon, to be too general, and that the Supreme Court has required greater specificity in defining the contours of individual rights. The District Court relied on cases that stated simply that an anonymous tip about a suspicious person alone does not create reasonable suspicion. The Seventh Circuit held that the District Court did not properly analyze the circumstances known to the defendant officer, noting the officer’s knowledge of the prior armed robbery, the time, and the officer’s knowledge of “casing” behavior. The cases relied upon by the District Court were too dissimilar to put the question of the Constitutionality of the officer’s conduct beyond debate. Therefore, the Seventh Circuit reversed the District Court’s refusal to grant the officer qualified immunity and directed the District Court to enter summary judgment for the officer on that basis.

Green v. Newport

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