Clearly Established Enough: The Fourth Circuit’s New Approach to Qualified Immunity in Bellotte v. Edwards

BY Daniel K. Siegel

This Recent Development argues that the Fourth Circuit was correct to adopt such an approach to qualified immunity. Although not explicitly spelled out by the court, this approach presents a reasonable way to balance the interests at stake in this profoundly unsettled area of law. Bellotte and subsequent Fourth Circuit decisions demonstrate that officers may be on notice that they are violating clearly established rights despite a lack of precedent directly on point. While beneficial to plaintiffs, this approach is not necessarily so loose as to impose an unfair burden on government officers who find themselves in unique, potentially dangerous situations where the law truly provides no clear guidance. Because qualified immunity is generally decided by pre-trial motion, this approach will also likely permit more legitimate civil claims to survive summary judgment. Such an approach furthers at least two important policy considerations. First, victims of government abuse will have a better opportunity to recover damages for the violation of their rights, thus promoting government accountability and avoiding unconscionable results. Those who have been terribly injured by a government officer should not be denied their day in court simply because a virtually identical case has not been previously decided. Second, this approach will allow the threat of civil liability to play a bigger role in deterring unconstitutional no-knock entries in the wake of Hudson v. Michigan, where the Supreme Court did away with the exclusionary rule in such cases.

Analysis proceeds in five parts. Part I sets forth the facts and central holdings of Bellotte. Part II briefly discusses the Supreme Court’s seemingly contradictory rulings on qualified immunity and the ensuing divergence among the circuits. Part II then notes how the Fourth Circuit generally addressed clearly established rights before Bellotte. Part III analyzes how Bellotte illustrates a shift in the Fourth Circuit’s approach to qualified immunity and argues that it is a proper way to handle the issue. Part IV discusses the important policy objectives this new framework promotes by allowing more legitimate claims of government abuse to survive summary judgment. Part V addresses problems this new approach may present, namely the potentially higher burden on government officers performing difficult and dangerous jobs. This Recent Development then concludes that the Fourth Circuit’s new approach, while imperfect, is still a preferable way to address qualified immunity until the Supreme Court provides further guidance.

DOWNLOAD PDF | 90 N.C. L. Rev.1241 (2012)