Supremes asked to decide whether state official can assume law enforcement authority

(Image courtesy Pixabay)
(Image courtesy Pixabay)

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The U.S. Supreme Court is being asked to decide whether a government employee – someone who is not in any law enforcement position – can assume the authority of a police officer and order trucks on a highway to stop.

The fight is being handled by the Institute for Justice on behalf of Central Specialities Inc., a family owned Minnesota road construction company.

The fight is over a decision by Jonathan Large, a highway engineer in Mahnomen County, to pull over two of CSI’s trucks and demand the drivers wait for more than three hours.

He had no authority to do so, but he was trying to get law real law enforcement officers to come to ticket them, IJ reported.

Despite the clear violation of the drivers’ constitutional rights, lower courts decided Large could not be sued because of the legal doctrine of qualified immunity.

IJ reported that shields government officials from being sued when they violate people’s constitutional rights.

“To … get their day in court, a plaintiff must show that the right the government official violated was ‘clearly established.’ To be clearly established, that typically comes down to whether there is a previous case on record with similar facts—where the court decided the official’s actions were unconstitutional,” IJ report.

“What makes the CSI appeal so important is that it shows how perverse qualified immunity is; if a government official like Jonathan Large acts completely outside of his duties when he violates the Constitution, it is unlikely that there will be previous case law with similar facts, so they can’t be held to account for their actions,” said Anya Bidwell, an IJ attorney. “So government officials who don’t do their jobs get a greater degree of protection than those who do. That cannot be right, and it cannot be what the Supreme Court intended when it developed the doctrine of qualified immunity.”

It was that kind of flawed reasoning that 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals used, IJ reported.

“The Supreme Court has said that the purpose of qualified immunity is to give government officials ‘breathing room’ to do their jobs,” said IJ Attorney Betsy Sanz. “But what if they’re not doing their jobs at all, but instead are doing the jobs of others? They do not need ‘breathing room’ to do things they are not authorized to do, so they should not get qualified immunity. The Supreme Court should say so.”

Explained Scott Bullock, the president of IJ, “IJ is the leading advocate fighting for greater accountability among government officials and against blanket immunity for those who violate the constitutional rights of others. The lawsuit is part of IJ’s Project on Immunity and Accountability, which is devoted to the simple idea that government officials are not above the rules; if citizens must follow the law, then government must follow the Constitution.”

The filing by IJ pointed to other circuit rulings that have determined in order to obtain qualified immunity, a defendant “must satisfy his burden of establishing that the challenged conduct was within the scope of his discretionary authority.”

As an engineer, Large was not authorized to conduct traffic stops.

The IJ filing noted that the 8th Circuit’s ruling clearly clashes with precedent.

“The county engineer here stopped drivers from going about their business and forced them to wait to be ticketed. … Nothing under Minnesota law allowed non-law-enforcement officers to do such things.”

Without a review, the IJ explained, the qualified immunity practices will continue to produce “perverse results,” and give engineers who are doing unsanctioned traffic stops more protection than police officers doing sanctioned traffic stops.

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