In two unanimous decisions yesterday, the Supreme Court made it more difficult for citizens to sue law enforcement officers for their conduct, NPR reports. The central issue in both was the doctrine of “qualified immunity,” which shields public officials from being sued for actions that fall short of violating a clearly established statutory or constitutional right. West Memphis, Ar., police pulled over Donald Rickard for driving with only one functioning headlight. When police asked him to step out of the car, he instead floored the gas pedal, swerving through traffic at high speeds. When he finally crashed the car, police fired 12 shots into the vehicle, resulting in the death of Rickard and his passenger. Justice Samuel Alito said the use of deadly force to end a dangerous high-speed chase was constitutional and did not violate any statute. As a result, the police were immune from suit.
A second case arose from a 2004 protest in Jacksonville, Or., against President George W. Bush. Two groups of demonstrators, one supportive and the other critical, assembled along the president’s route. When the president detoured to dine on an outdoor patio, that choice put him in weapons range of the anti-Bush group. Secret Service agents directed local police to relocate the anti-Bush group, which ended up one block farther from the president than the supporters. The protesters sued the agents for violating their First Amendment rights, arguing they were denied “equal access to the president” based only on the content of their speech to “insulate the president from their message.” The Supreme Court rejected that contention, declaring the agents immune from lawsuits in cases like this.