Monday, August 22, 2011

Torres v. City of Madera (9th Cir. - August 22, 2011)

Some cases seem completely easy.  Take, for example, the following hypothetical.  An unarmed suspect is handcuffed in the back seat of a police cruiser.  A police officer takes out a gun and shoots him dead.  Does that violate the suspect's constitutional rights?

Yes.  Yes it does.  You don't need law school for that.  You have a right not to be shot and killed for no reason.  Seems pretty darn obvious.

Nor does that answer change because the officer wasn't trying to kill you, but instead mistakenly shot you because she couldn't tell her taser from her gun (or didn't bother to look).  That might be relevant to whether you impose punitive damages, or how egregious the violation was.  But it doesn't change the fact that you had a constitutional right to keep breathing and the police officer took that away from you.

It's a violation of your rights for a police officer to knock on your door, politely walk past you, and search your closet.  Surely that's a lot less intrusive than killing you.  I certainly know which one I'd prefer.

But notwithstanding how seemingly obvious this fact is, look how much it takes for the Ninth Circuit to hold that, yep, you can indeed sue when an officer kills you for no reason.  Twenty pages.  In a decision in which the court reverses a contrary finding by the district court, which held the officer immune from suit.  That's a good piece of evidence that it often requires almost herculean gymnastics to be able to sue even the most severe violation of one's rights.

Admittedly, ultimately, the judiciary gets this one right.  But it's depressing how much that takes.  Both in terms of transaction costs and in terms of simple justice.

Sometimes one's initial impressions are correct.  This is one of those times.