Police do not have an automatic right to qualified immunity, court rules

Reformers say the decision is a step toward ending the practice

By: - March 30, 2022 3:06 pm

The case centers around the claims of a man who says he was falsey arrested by Newark police in 2015. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)

The New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously agreed Wednesday to allow a wrongful arrest and imprisonment lawsuit against two Newark police officers to proceed, rejecting the city’s repeated efforts to shield the officers from liability.

Reformers welcomed the ruling as a small step toward advancing their battle to end qualified immunity, a legal defense municipalities use to prevent public officials from facing lawsuits for civil rights violations.

The case centered on whether public officials can continue to claim qualified immunity if a judge has already denied that protection. The state Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Anne Patterson, affirmed lower courts’ rulings that held police officers accused of misconduct do not have an automatic right to appeal an order denying qualified immunity.

Karen Thompson, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said the decision represents “an important step toward repairing the injustices that qualified immunity has created.”

“Using procedural quirks to assert qualified immunity, delay litigation, and avoid accountability — even after a court has told an officer they are not entitled to it — is a practice that works against the public interest and harms New Jerseyans trying to obtain justice,” said Thompson, who filed an amicus brief in the case.

Attorney Brooke M. Barnett argued the case for plaintiff Hamid Harris, whom she has represented since 2015. Had the state’s top court sided with Newark instead, Barnett said, people who sue police for civil rights violations would likely see their cases grind to a halt, as municipalities endlessly claim immunity.

“It basically would stop the whole process and drag these cases out longer and force people to make settlements for pennies on the dollar, because people just want closure after these cases drag on so many years,” Barnett said. “But the Supreme Court said, ‘No, no bueno. Not happening.’ Because they recognize that’s going to clog the system and discriminate against these plaintiffs and prevent them from getting closure.”

Supporters of qualified immunity say it protects public officials from unwarranted lawsuits, and getting rid of it could discourage officers from acting if they fear they’ll be held liable. Critics say the practice makes it impossible to hold law enforcement officers accountable when they use excessive force or otherwise violate someone’s civil rights.

Wednesday’s ruling stems from a case dating back to 2015, when Newark Police Det. Donald Stabile arrested Harris for four armed robberies that occurred in Newark in January 2015, according to the ruling.

Harris denied his involvement, he didn’t look like the robber caught on surveillance video, and a victimized store owner told police Harris wasn’t the robber, according to a civil rights lawsuit Harris later filed. Harris further claimed Newark Police Officer Angel Romero told Harris’ mother — in a phone conversation she recorded — that he and Stabile knew another man was the armed robber, but Stabile didn’t bother charging him because Irvington police had tied him to a homicide.

Still, Harris spent three months in prison and lost his job before charges against him were dropped, Barnett said.

He sued in 2016 for false arrest, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, conspiracy, unlawful search and seizure, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. A trial judge twice sided with Harris and allowed his case to proceed, dismissing Stabile’s and Romero’s immunity claims because their actions were “objectively unreasonable.”

Wednesday’s ruling is the second time the Supreme Court has decided a case involving Stabile. In 2019, justices affirmed a lower court’s ruling suppressing the identification of an armed robbery suspect because Stabile failed to follow procedures on how crime victims identify suspects from a digital database of mug shots.

Barnett said Wednesday’s ruling should send a message to municipalities quick to claim qualified immunity to “stop it.” She called Stabile’s actions “shameful.”

“I can’t wait to get him in front of an Essex County jury,” Barnett said. “He’s a stain on the Newark Police Department’s reputation. Qualified immunity should never be applied to somebody like Det. Stabile.”

Gary S. Lipshutz, an attorney for Newark, said he couldn’t comment because the case is ongoing.

A bill that would end qualified immunity in New Jersey failed to advance in the last legislative session, but lawmakers introduced the measure again in January.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.

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