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Summary of Qualified Immunity

 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. Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 73 L. Ed. 2d 396, 102 S. Ct. 2727 (1982); American Civil 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).