Monday, March 12, 2018
The Tenth Circuit last week ruled that officers enjoyed qualified immunity against an open-carrying-plaintiff's claims that they detained him in violation of the Second Amendment and prevented him from recording their actions in violation of the First Amendment.
While the ruling goes only to qualified immunity, it underscores that there's no clearly established right to open carry under the Second Amendment, and no clearly established right of a detainee to record police officers in public. More generally, the ruling also illustrates just how stingy qualified immunity can be in protecting officers from constitutional tort claims.
The case, Sandberg v. Englewood, Colorado, arose when officers responded to a 911 call in which a caller reported "some form of workplace violence" after observing Westin Sandberg openly carrying his 9-millimeter Ruger on the streets of Englewood. The officers detained Sandberg and determined that there was no basis for the "workplace violence" allegation. But they continued to detain him--for four hours total--while they determined whether they could charge him with anything else. Finally, the officers wrote a summons for disorderly conduct. (Colorado's disorderly conduct statute says: "A person commits disorderly conduct if he or she intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly . . . displays a deadly weapon . . . .") They also took his gun, holster, bullets, and magazine. Four months later, the prosecutor dropped the charge, and, a month after that, returned Sandberg's property to him.
Sandberg sued, alleging violations of his First, Second, and Fourth Amendment rights, and gun-rights under the Colorado Constitution.
The Tenth Circuit rejected the federal constitutional claims, holding that the officers and prosecutor enjoyed qualified immunity. As to Sandberg's Second Amendment claim, the court said that there was no clearly established right to carry a gun in public. The court said that Justice Thomas's dissent to a denial of cert. in Peruta v. California and the Seventh Circuit ruling in Moore v. Madigan weren't enough, given that Justice Thomas's dissent carries no legal weight, and that the Seventh Circuit is the only circuit to hold that the Second Amendment encompasses a right to carry in public.
As to Sandberg's First Amendment claim, the court said that while some other circuits have held that the First Amendment protects the act of recording police officers' public conduct, they either post-dated the events in this case or involved a third-party recording the police (and not, as here, the detainee himself filming the police). Because there's no case-law on all fours, the court ruled that the law wasn't clearly established, and that the officers therefore enjoyed qualified immunity.
Lacking federal question jurisdiction, the court sent Sandberg's Colorado Constitutional claim back to the district court with instructions to dismiss.
While the case isn't (directly) a ruling on the merits, it does illustrate just how hard it can be to succeed on a constitutional tort claim against officers' qualified immunity. The qualified immunity doctrine allows courts to look first (and only) at whether a right is "clearly established" (without ever actually engaging the right itself). Moreover, in judging the "clearly established" question, the doctrine practically requires circuit precedent, or precedent from a majority of sister circuits, on all fours with the rights claim in the particular case. Because this is so hard to show--especially in cases involving relatively new rights claims, as here, which, because of their newness, simply haven't been litigated a lot--there's a weighty thumb on the scale in favor of qualified immunity, and against civil rights plaintiffs.