The federal corollary to the oft-blogged about “substantial right doctrine” in the North Carolina appellate courts is the “collateral order doctrine.” As is the case under North Carolina law, the jurisdiction of the United States Circuit Courts of Appeals is generally limited to final decisions of the district court. Therefore, a federal appellate court ordinarily cannot review interlocutory orders. But, as in North Carolina, there are exceptions. One of these exceptions is the collateral order doctrine, which allows review of certain orders “that are conclusive, that resolve important questions separate from the merits, and are effectively unreviewable on appeal from the final judgment in the underlying action.” Adams v. Ferguson, 884 F.3d 219, 223-24 (4th Cir. 2018).
One of the most common situations in which the collateral order doctrine is applied is when a defense of qualified immunity is asserted (similar to North Carolina, where the defense of governmental immunity often triggers the application of the substantial right doctrine). That was the situation in Williams v. Strickland, decided by the Fourth Circuit on March 5, 2019.
Williams involved an Fourth Amendment excessive force claim under 42 U.S.C. sec. 1983 against two law enforcement officers. The Plaintiff contended that the officers violated his Fourth Amendment rights when they used deadly force during his arrest. The facts of the case involved one of the law enforcement officers running the plates on Plaintiff’s car and learning that the plates were stolen. The officer pulled Plaintiff over and other officers arrived on the scene. While the officers were outside of their patrol cars and approaching the Plaintiff’s car, Plaintiff began intentionally driving at two of the officers. Believing they were in danger, the officers opened fire. Plaintiff was hit and crashed into a tree. He suffered permanent injuries as a result.
Plaintiff was ultimately charged with assault and battery related to his acts and pled guilty. As part of his plea, he admitted to intentionally driving at the officers. Importantly, however, he stated in his plea that the officers started shooting at him only after his car had driven past them.
The crux of the issue on appeal was whether the officers were entitled to qualified immunity for their use of force. In the district court the officers had moved for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity and that motion was denied. Of course, an order denying summary judgment cannot normally be reviewed by the appellate court because it is interlocutory. However, the Fourth Circuit acknowledged that “[a] district court’s denial of summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity is a collateral order and therefore subject to immediate review, despite being interlocutory.” The Court then made an important statement that defines the scope of its review in such a scenario:
Our review of such orders is limited to a narrow legal question: if we take the facts as the district court gives them to us, and we view those facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, is the defendant still entitled to qualified immunity? Significantly, we cannot reach whether the plaintiff has produced enough evidence to survive summary judgment.
(internal citations omitted)
The Court went on to explain that under this narrow scope of review, the only question before it in Williams was “would the officers be entitled to qualified immunity if a jury concluded that they had fired on Williams when they were no longer in the trajectory of Williams’s car?” The answer to that question was “no.” The use of deadly force by a law enforcement officer on a fleeing suspect is only reasonable if the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses an immediate threat of death of significant physical harm to the officers or others. Importantly for the case before the Court, the established law is that even if deadly force was appropriate at some point in the encounter, if at any time the threat from the suspect disappears, so does the reasonableness of the use of force. Thus, if the officers started or continued to fire on Williams after they were no longer in the path of his vehicle, they violated his Fourth Amendment rights. (The second part of the qualified immunity analysis is whether that law was clearly established at the time of the alleged act; because the Fourth Circuit had addressed similar situations in a number of other cases, the Court determined that the law was, in fact, clearly established.)
Applying this legal precedent to the “facts as the district court gave them” to the Court, which facts (at least as a reasonable jury could view them) were that the officers had either started or continued shooting at the Plaintiff’s vehicle after they were no longer within its trajectory, the Court held that qualified immunity did not apply. So the district court’s ruling denying the officers’ motions were affirmed and the case will now proceed to trial.
As one who regularly defends law enforcement agencies and officers, I can say that this is undoubtedly a difficult result for law enforcement. Given the nature of the job and the situations that sometimes confront officers, a rule of law that requires officers in the heat of an encounter in which their lives or the lives of others are in danger to recognize the precise moment that the threat dissipates and immediately change their behavior, is arguably unworkable in practice. However, from a procedural standpoint the Williams case shows the benefits of the collateral order doctrine; it allowed the officers to have the district court’s interlocutory ruling on the motions to be heard immediately by the appellate court. Were this doctrine unavailable, the officers would have had to sit through a trial of claims for which they may have had immunity, which would have in large part defeated one of the main reasons for qualified immunity in the first place. What the Williams opinion makes clear, though, is just how narrow the scope of the Circuit Courts’ review of a qualified immunity decision is in these situations.