Amicus Brief: West v. Winfield
Institute for Justice

Amicus Brief

Amicus Brief: West v. Winfield

The reasoning embraced by the Ninth and Second Circuits—requiring a Section 1983 plaintiff to point to a decided case with identical, or nearly so, factual allegations in order to defeat qualified immunity—sets an impossible standard

No. 19-899

In the Supreme Court of the United States

Shaniz West, Petitioner,
Doug Winfield, et al., Respondents.

On Petition for a Writ of Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

Brief of the Dkt Liberty Project, the Due Process Institute, the Rutherford Institute, and Reason Foundation as Amici

Summary of Argument

Petitioner Shaniz West provided law enforcement officers with the key to her home and consented to allow those officers to enter her home to apprehend her ex-boyfriend, who was believed to be inside. What happened next exceeded any plausible understanding of Ms. West’s consent.

Over a series of hours, officers besieged her home with tear gas canisters in an attempt to flush out West’s ex-boyfriend—causing devastating property damage to West’s home and belongings—all before actually attempting to enter her home.

The conduct of the defendants in this case is shocking. But, without even determining whether the defendants’ brazen actions constituted an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment, the Ninth Circuit below granted the defendants qualified immunity because no case established the unlawfulness of the defendants’ conduct with sufficient specificity “to alert these deputies in this case that their particular conduct was unlawful.” Pet. App. at 14 (quotation marks omitted).

As the Petition explains, the decision below entrenches a split of authority among the courts of appeal over the degree of factual similarity that is required to find that a Fourth Amendment violation concerning a consent search is “clearly established.” But even more importantly, the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning locks qualified immunity doctrine into an impossible catch-22. Consistent with this Court’s precedent, lower courts are free to grant qualified immunity solely on the ground that a constitutional violation is not “clearly established”—and in doing so, to sidestep resolving the merits of constitutional claims. See Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236 (2009). The types of cases the decision below deems required to hold law enforcement officials accountable, therefore, are unlikely to materialize. The result is that even egregious violations of constitutional rights will be shielded from liability under Section 1983.

Not only is that result wrong as a matter of doctrine, but it also exacerbates the significant costs that an already expansive immunity doctrine imposes on litigants, the public, and law enforcement. If immunity will make success extremely difficult in Section 1983 cases seeking to recover damages based on even the most egregious constitutional violations, litigants will be discouraged from bringing those cases. And when bad actors are not held accountable, public trust in law enforcement is severely compromised. Policing by those officers who act reasonably is only made difficult and less safe—to the detriment of the rule of law.

The Court should grant the petition and provide needed guidance on the scope of the “clearly established” inquiry.

Amicus Brief: West v. Winfield