Qualified Immunity Defense to Civil Rights
Government officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded from
liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established
statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.
v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 73 L. Ed. 2d 396, 102 S. Ct. 2727 (1982);
Liberties Union, Inc. v. Wicomico County, 999 F.2d 780, 784 (4th Cir. 1993). The Supreme
Court in Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 97 L. Ed. 2d 523, 107 S. Ct. 3034 (1987),
held that immunity from civil liability exists so long as the official's "actions
could reasonably have been thought consistent with the rights they are alleged to have
violated." Id. at 638. In that regard, the Court explained that:
The contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would
understand that what he is doing violates that right. This is not to say that an official
action is protected by qualified immunity unless the very action in question has
previously been held unlawful . . . but it is to say that in the light of pre-existing law
the unlawfulness must be apparent. Id. at 640.
Thus, the doctrine of qualified immunity extends to law enforcement officers a margin
of error "when they navigate uncharted areas at the margins of constitutional
criminal law." Tarantino v. Baker, 825 F.2d 772, 774 (4th Cir. 1987).8 This is
because ". . . there are two levels on which the immunity shield operates. First, the
particular right must be clearly established in the law. Second, the manner in which the
right applies to the actions of the official must also be apparent." Maciariello v.
Sumner, 973 F.2d 295, 298 (4th Cir. 1992), cert. denied, 506 U.S. 1080, 113 S. Ct. 1048,
122 L. Ed. 2d 356 (1993). Therefore, "officials are not liable for bad guesses in
gray areas; they are liable for transgressing bright lines." Id.
The availability of qualified immunity is determined against a standard of objective
reasonableness. See Davis v. Scherer, 468 U.S. 183, 191, 82 L. Ed. 2d 139, 104 S. Ct. 3012
(1984). As the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has observed, "the Supreme
Court's decisions place a special emphasis on the reasonableness of an officer's actions,
requiring courts to make an objective inquiry into the facts facing the officer at the
time of the alleged improper act." Taylor v. Farmer, 13 F.3d at 120. Consequently,
whether an official may be held personally liable for unlawful official action turns on
"the 'objective legal reasonableness' of the action . . . assessed in light of the
legal rules that were 'clearly established' at the time it was taken." Anderson v.
Creighton, 483 U.S. at 639; see also Price v. Sasser, 65 F.3d 342, 345 (4th Cir. 1995).
And, the law "must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable officer would have known
that his actions violated the law." Amato v. City of Richmond, 875 F. Supp. 112, 1142
(E.D. Va. 1994) (emphasis in original).
Claims of qualified immunity are appropriate for resolution on summary judgment because
immunity is an "entitlement not to stand trial or face other burdens of
litigation." Turner v. Dammon, 848 F.2d 440, 443 (4th Cir. 1988).