Does Circuit Precedent Deprive Officers of Qualified Immunity?

In Carroll v. Carman, one of this week’s summary reversals, the Supreme Court held that officers violated no clearly established federal law in conducting a “knock and talk” and so were protected by qualified immunity. Almost as an aside, the Court assumed arguendo that circuit law could constitute clearly established law. In other words, the Court reserved the possibility that officers could defy on-point circuit precedent and still retain qualified immunity. This issue is both important and fascinating.

In this post, I’ll assess relevant cases to shed light on how the doctrine reached its current shape and where it might be going. In my next post, I’ll discuss whether the apparent trend in qualified immunity doctrine makes sense.

The Court has held that officers sued for constitutional wrongs are generally immune from suit unless their conduct violated “clearly established” law. Carroll applied that deceptively familiar standard. Quoting Stanton v. Sims, a similar qualified-immunity summary reversal from about a year ago, Carroll found the officers immune: “[W]hether or not the constitutional rule applied by the court below was correct, it was not ‘beyond debate.’” In other words, it was beyond debate that the issue wasn’t beyond debate.

For present purposes, the interesting thing about Carroll is that it expressed uncertainty as to whether circuit precedent could defeat an officer’s assertion of qualified immunity. Here’s the key passage:

[T]he Third Circuit cited only a single case to support its decision that Carroll was not entitled to qualified immunity—Estate of Smith v. Marasco, 318 F.3d 497 (C.A.3 2003). Assuming for the sake of argument that a controlling circuit precedent could constitute clearly established federal law in these circumstances, see Reichle v. Howards, 566 U.S. ––––, ––––, 132 S.Ct. 2088, 2094 (2012), Marasco does not clearly establish that Carroll violated the Carmans’ Fourth Amendment rights.

As this passage indicates, the Court made a similar reservation in Reichle two years ago. Reichle’s reservation was somewhat surprising and prompted blog commentary marveling that this basic aspect of the “clearly established law” standard was itself not clearly established. Interestingly, the Court doesn’t always make this reservation when discussing qualified immunity. In last year’s Stanton summary reversal, for instance, no such disclaimer appeared, even though the Court marched through circuit precedents to show their ambiguity.

The reservation in Reichle could have had to do with the distinctive features of that case, which involved the Secret Service. In its Reichle brief, the Solicitor General made the following argument:

The protective duties of the Secret Service are not confined to a particular geographic locale, but instead follow the protected individuals wherever they may be. It is unreasonable, undesirable, and unrealistic to expect agents to modify their performance of their duties based on the law of the local court of appeals, or to “abide by the most stringent standard adopted anywhere in the United States.” al-Kidd, 131 S. Ct. at 2087 (Kennedy, J., concurring).

In other words, it might not be reasonable to expect officers operating in many jurisdictions to study up on each new jurisdiction that they enter. In support of that point, the Solicitor General relied on Justice Kennedy’s 2011 concurrence in Ashcroft v. al-Kidd. The “Ashcroft” in that case name was the Attorney General of the United States. For present purposes, here is the key passage from Justice Kennedy’s opinion:

Some federal officers perform their functions in a single jurisdiction, say within the confines of one State or one federal judicial district. They “reasonably can anticipate when their conduct may give rise to liability for damages” and so are expected to adjust their behavior in accordance with local precedent. In contrast the Attorney General occupies a national office and so sets policies implemented in many jurisdictions throughout the country. The official with responsibilities in many jurisdictions may face ambiguous and sometimes inconsistent sources of decisional law. While it may be clear that one Court of Appeals has approved a certain course of conduct, other Courts of Appeals may have disapproved it, or at least reserved the issue.

When faced with inconsistent legal rules in different jurisdictions, national officeholders should be given some deference for qualified immunity purposes, at least if they implement policies consistent with the governing law of the jurisdiction where the action is taken.

Because of the way the Solicitor General briefed the case, it seemed possible that Reichle meant to reserve the role of circuit precedent specifically in cases involving national officers. Supporting that possibility, the reservation was expressly (if vaguely) limited to “the circumstances of this case.” Perhaps the relevant “circumstances” included the defendants’ role as secret-service agents—a fact that figured prominently in the briefing, oral argument, and ultimate decision.

The Court began to expand on Justice Kennedy’s concurrence in Stanton, the qualified summary reversal from last year. As a side note, the fact that this development occurred in Stanton is rather remarkable in itself, since summary reversals aren’t supposed to change the law—though that purported rule is often observed in the breach. (Michael Dorf just made a similar point in connection with both of this week’s summary reversals.) In any event, Stanton emphasized that the officers had acted in accordance with local state-court precedent. This led the Court to observe:

It is especially troubling that the Ninth Circuit would conclude that Stanton was plainly incompetent—and subject to personal liability for damages—based on actions that were lawful according to courts in the jurisdiction where he acted. Cf. al–Kidd, 131 S.Ct., at 2086–2087 (KENNEDY, J., concurring).

The “Cf.” cite here is appropriate, for the Court was building on Justice Kennedy’s insight, rather than applying it. The officer in Stanton wasn’t a “national” officer. Rather, he was a regular officer who was getting somewhat different messages from the state and federal courts operating in the same geographical space. This situation is structurally similar to the predicament of a national officer getting conflicting precedential signals, but still quite different. Most obviously, there are fewer sources of precedent for local officers (usually just two, as Justice Kennedy’s concurrence noted), and it doesn’t seem so hard to keep abreast of two jurisdictions’ laws. National officers are also uniquely relevant to, well, national policy. Finally, moving beyond national officers means that the logic of the Kennedy concurrence is no longer an exception or unusual situation. Instead, Stanton’s logic is potentially applicable to every officer.

Carroll may build on Stanton by suggesting that out-of-jurisdiction precedent might countermand local precedent. In addition to making the state-court point above, Stanton had emphasized “the fact that federal and state courts nationwide are sharply divided” on the relevant question. Carroll likewise explained at some length that the “Third Circuit’s decision is even more perplexing in comparison to the decisions of other federal and state courts, which have rejected the rule the Third Circuit adopted here.” Could such supportive out-of-jurisdiction precedent provide a reason to immunize an officer, even when the officer’s home jurisdiction prohibits a particular action? This possibility may explain Carroll’s reservation. To repeat, Carroll “[a]ssume[d] for the sake of argument that a controlling circuit precedent could constitute clearly established federal law in these circumstances.” The relevant “circumstances” may have included not just the fact that “only a single case” cut against the officers, but also the existence of pro-officer case law from other jurisdictions. Or perhaps not–the Court is opaque on this point.

While it’s impossible to know for sure, the Court seems to be exhibiting increasing interest in limiting the sources of law that can overcome qualified immunity. Especially remarkably, that apparently growing level of interest is evident in unanimous summary reversals, like Stanton and Carroll. Indeed, all of the cases discussed above are just a few years old at most. So while the trend line might shift, it currently places circuit precedent’s status in doubt.

My next post will discuss the normative question of whether circuit precedent should deprive officers of qualified immunity.



Filed under Immunity, Procedure

7 responses to “Does Circuit Precedent Deprive Officers of Qualified Immunity?

  1. Jim Pfander

    Then there’s Camreta, which assumes that officers working in the 9th Circuit would be hemmed in by circuit authority on questioning at school.

    • Jim, Many thanks! By coincidence, I just added that example over in the comments at Prawfs, where Howard and Will have identified Lanier as well. Camreta will figure into the sequel post as well, in part because it shows that this debate is related to Pearson and its legacy. I’d be keen to hear more of your thoughts!

  2. Pingback: Should Circuit Precedent Deprive Officers of Qualified Immunity? | Re’s Judicata

  3. Roy Englert

    I have always thought this question quite easy (and have been surprised at how many really smart and knowledgeable people don’t agree with me). If United States Circuit Judges, after full briefing, disagree with one another about what the Constitution requires, it is inconceivable that officers in the field are violating constitutional rights so clear that they should know better. Why should circuit precedent interpreting the Constitution, if wrong or even so arguably wrong that another court of equal dignity disagrees, take away an officer’s qualified immunity? If circuit precedent is allowed to take away qualified immunity, then an officer who gets the Constitution right while the Ninth Circuit gets it wrong, for example, may be held liable for violating a “clearly established” constitutional right when it will actually turn out, when the Supreme Court eventually resolves the circuit split, that she did not violate the Constitution at all. The reason many — perhaps most — people disagree, I suspect, is not that there is illogic in my position, but that the results seem too harsh to be palatable. If so, however, then the fault lies with how the qualified-immunity standard is formulated, not with how it’s applied.

    • Roy, Many thanks as ever. I discuss a similar point in my sequel post, including by asking whether similar reasoning might even apply to Supreme Court precedent. Here, let me say something more about why I find your point powerful but not a knock-down, even if we accept “how the qualified-immunity standard is formulated.” Imagine that you are an attorney in Circuit X (“CAX,” in pool memos) and that that circuit had, in Precedent P, held that Action A is illegal, perhaps because it’s contrary to statutory or regulatory law–something outside the qualified-immunity context. Then a client comes to you and says: “I want to do Action A, and I’m willing to risk a court battle to do it. But I’m no fool. I won’t do Action A if it’s clearly established that Action A is illegal–is it?” I think it’s not obvious whether the answer to this question should start with a “Yes” or a “No.” The reason is that the prospect of Supreme Court review is usually speculative and quite long in coming, making circuit law perhaps not absolutely established, but pretty darn close. So it may be pretty clear that, if your client does Action X, he/she/it will soon be find liable without any reliable prospect of appeal. Possibly finding out years later that the Supreme Court vindicated your client is going to be cold comfort. To me, that means it’s not obvious how the “clearly established law” formulation should cash out when circuit precedent is at stake.

  4. Roy Englert

    See also pp. 22ff of, which argue a closely related point somewhat differently than I would but do make several compelling arguments.

  5. Pingback: “Clearly Established” Circuit Law in Good-Faith Suppression Cases | Re’s Judicata

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