For Want of a Comma…. Qualified Immunity Protects Law Enforcement Officers Sued Under the Civil Rights Act

Morillo v. Monmouth County Sheriff’s Officers, 222 N.J. 104 (2015).  It has long been the case, especially under the federal Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. §1983, that law enforcement officers get broad protection by virtue of the doctrine of qualified immunity.  In this case, which was brought under both the federal statute and New Jersey’s own Civil Rights Act, N.J.S.A. 10:6-1 to -2, the Supreme Court of New Jersey, speaking through Justice LaVecchia, applied that immunity in favor of police officers.

As Justice LaVecchia explained, qualified immunity is generally an issue for the court on summary judgment, rather than for a jury at trial.  In this case, defendants sought summary judgment, but the Law Division denied that motion.  On leave to appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed.  The Supreme Court then granted leave to appeal and reversed, ruling that qualified immunity should have been granted.

Qualified immunity, under both the federal and New Jersey statutes, implicates a two-part test: (1) whether the facts alleged, “taken in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury, show that the challenged conduct violated a statutory or constitutional right,” and (2) “whether the right was clearly established.”  Courts can analyze these two prongs in either order.  For a right to be “clearly established,” what matters is “whether a reasonable officer in the same situation clearly would understand that his actions were unlawful.”

Here, the civil rights claim arose out of what plaintiff asserted was a wrongful charge by the defendant officers of unlawful possession of a handgun in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(b)(1).  Plaintiff was carrying his lawfully registered gun while sitting in a car on property surrounding his mother’s home, where plaintiff was then living.  He contended that an exemption from prosecution for someone carrying a weapon “about his place of business, residence, premises or other land owned or possessed by him” clearly established that the officers had no right to cite him for unlawful possession.  But, as Justice LaVecchia detailed, the statutory language was ambiguous, in large part due to the absence of a comma (not the first time that a comma played a significant role in a Civil Rights Act case), and it was possible to read the exemption as inapplicable to plaintiff.  “[The scope of that exception remains unsettled by any interpretive decision by the courts.”  Accordingly, it could not be said that a reasonable officer in the place of these defendants “clearly would understand that his actions were unlawful.”

Qualified immunity applies most tenaciously to law enforcement officers, who (as Justice LaVecchia observed) often face “difficult circumstances” and “uncertain legal terrain,” such as confronting a person with a loaded deadly weapon, as here.  In such circumstances, officers must make split-second decisions, and the federal case law in particular expresses a reluctance to subject officers in such “bang-bang” (pun intended) situations to civil rights liability.  That same rationale does not apply to other public officials.  Thus, qualified immunity decisions involving police officers, virtually all of which rulings generally find qualified immunity to apply, have only limited applicability, at best, to other public officials who, unlike police, are not in physical danger and do not act under unsettled or ambiguous legal principles.