The deceased brother’s estate sued all three officers alleging that the deceased brother’s civil rights had been violated as the result of excessive force. In its decision, the Supreme Court focused much of its discussion on the conduct of the third officer who shot and killed the brother. The lower courts concluded that the third officer’s actions constituted excessive force because prior Supreme Court rulings like Tennessee v. Garner and Graham v. O’Connor had held that before an officer uses deadly force, the officer must first warn a suspect of his or her intention to use deadly force. The lower courts held that these prior cases clearly established that the third officer’s actions in this instance were unlawful, and that as such, he was not entitled to qualified immunity. To be beat a qualified immunity defense, the plaintiff must show that an officer violated a constitutional or statutory right and that this right was clearly established at the time of the incident.
The Supreme Court described the central question in the case as whether an officer, who had arrived late at an ongoing police incident and having witnessed shots being fired by one of the criminal suspects, should have known that he needed to give a warning before firing his weapon. To this question, the Court answered no. It held that before this case, the Constitution had not clearly established that an officer who arrives late at an ongoing police incident must assume that his fellow officers had not given sufficient warning. The Supreme Court further held that proving that an officer engaged in excessive force under Garner and Graham was not enough to defeat a qualified immunity defense. Rather, to defeat this defense, a plaintiff must also point to a prior case where under similar circumstances, a court found an officer’s use of force to be excessive.
Previously, many lawyers and judges felt that to defeat a qualified immunity defense, all one had to do was to establish under Graham and Garner that an officer’s use of force was excessive. Yet those days are now gone. Now, a plaintiff must be able to point to a prior case where an officer was found to have engaged in excessive force under similar circumstances. This will be a difficult task for many plaintiffs, as every case is different and has its own factual identity. In short, before White v. Pauly, proving a civil rights excessive force violation was hard. Now, it has become even harder.