In September 2013 Trent Taylor was left in a feces filled prison cell. That day sparked a legal odyssey stretching from a state prison outside Lubbock to the U.S. Supreme Court. He fought for the right to sue his guards and lost in two lower courts, only to prevail in the nation’s highest court in November 2020. Though barely known to the public, his case — which centers around a legal doctrine known as qualified immunity — provides new legal avenues to hold law enforcement responsible for the most egregious misconduct, reported The Marshall Project.
Qualified immunity shields government workers from being personally sued for their actions on the job, except in rare circumstances. The idea is that no one would want to work for the government if they were at risk of personal bankruptcy for every good faith mistake. But in recent years, groups across the ideological spectrum have begun to question the doctrine, arguing it made it nearly impossible to hold law enforcement accountable.
After George Floyd’s death, with millions of people taking to the streets calling for police reform, qualified immunity — a concept previously relegated to marble-columned courtrooms and law review articles — was the target of protests and lobbying in state legislatures.
“The justices are watching the news and know what is going on in the country,” said Kelsi Corkran, a senior fellow at Georgetown Law School who worked on Taylor’s case. “There was a lot of pressure on the court to align the doctrine with realities of today.”
Taylor ultimately spent a total of six days in two fetid cells. At that point, he had been locked up for years, on and off since he was a teenager, including on a previous conviction stemming from an assault. But these were the most disgusting conditions he’d ever encountered, he said. In the first cell, he didn’t eat or drink for days, fearing his food and water would be contaminated. The second had no toilet — he was told to relieve himself into the clogged drain on the floor, despite begging to be brought to the bathroom. The cell also had no bed, so Taylor was forced to sleep naked on the floor in raw sewage.
Prison staff had placed Taylor in the cells in a psychiatric unit after he overdosed on pain medication because they were concerned he might harm himself.
When Taylor sued the officers who put him in those cells and ignored his cries for help, federal judges agreed that the conditions were unconstitutional — but they threw out his lawsuit, citing qualified immunity. The issue has come up again and again as the country grapples with what accountability for law enforcement should look like.
For years, courts upheld this legal shield. The Supreme Court granted qualified immunity to police in Oklahoma who arrived at a hospital to help staff restrain an agitated patient, but instead shocked him with a stun gun and pinned him to the ground until he died. In another case where the court allowed qualified immunity, a Georgia deputy sheriff shot a 10-year-old who was laying face down on the ground. The cop had been aiming at the family dog and missed.
Courts have used qualified immunity “to protect law enforcement officers from having to face any consequences for wrongdoing,” Mississippi District Court Judge Carlton W. Reeves wrote in a ruling last summer. Even when police commit egregious abuse and misconduct, the judge said, “qualified immunity has served as a shield for these officers, protecting them from accountability.”
Then, for the first time in decades, the Supreme Court signaled in Taylor’s case that this shield has gone too far: “Any reasonable officer should have realized that Taylor’s conditions of confinement offended the Constitution,” the justices wrote. Taylor could sue, after all.
“This is a new message,” said Joanna Schwartz, a law professor who studies qualified immunity at UCLA. “This is not a reversal of qualified immunity — it is not a new doctrine,” she said, but it does indicate that courts should start thinking more critically about when officers need protection and when that protection becomes a free pass for abuse.
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