Do government officials deserve immunity when they don’t do their job?

Decades ago, the Supreme Court created the doctrine of qualified immunity to protect government officials when they were sued for violation of constitutional rights. At the time, the Court wrote that the doctrine was not meant to be a “license for lawless conduct.” But over the years, qualified immunity has expanded, and in some states officials who act outside their authority have even been allowed to escape prosecution.

In New Mexico, an officer received qualified immunity even though he was off duty and he received a criminal conviction for the way he treated an innocent man. In Minnesota, a traffic engineer was granted qualified immunity after detaining truck drivers for hours when he had no authority to make arrests. Both decisions are being appealed to the higher federal courts. The details of both cases demonstrate a clear abuse of power, an abuse that must not be ignored.

Mario Rosales was driving home to Roswell, New Mexico when he passed a black pickup truck without thinking too much. He soon realized that the truck was following him. After making several turns without signaling, his suspicions were confirmed.

When Mario pulled into his driveway, the truck blocked him. In New Mexico, open carry is legal, and Mario tucked his pistol in his pocket in plain sight as he got out of his car. What Mario didn’t know was that the van driver was the sheriff’s deputy with a habit of letting his temper get the better of him.

Chaves County Sheriff’s Deputy David Bradshaw had been kicked out by the Los Alamos Police Department a few years earlier after being prosecuted for inmate abuse. He was offered another job despite this story, and kept that job at the sheriff’s office even after developing a reputation for his explosive temper. Mario had done nothing wrong passing Bradshaw. It was road rage, not an attempt to enforce the law, that motivated the MP.

Bradshaw yelled and cursed Mario, then pointed his gun at him. Bradshaw did this even though his toddler was sitting in the front seat of the van, inches away from him. Luckily for everyone, another deputy arrived on the scene.

The deputy convinced Bradshaw to leave and did not give Mario a ticket. Bradshaw was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and child abuse. A jury convicted him and he was sent to prison. Mario filed a lawsuit against Bradshaw and the county for violation of his civil rights.

Although the district court agreed that Mario’s constitutional rights had been violated, it still granted Bradshaw qualified immunity and dismissed the suit. Now Mario asks for the 10e Circuit Court of Appeals to let his case move forward.

Far from the New Mexico desert, a traffic engineer decided he was a traffic cop. Jonathan Large works for Mahnomen County with responsibility for “performing and preparing all surveys, estimates, plans and specifications that are required of the engineer.” This includes setting weight limits on county roads.

A large and local family-owned construction company, Central Specialties, Inc. (CSI), has had a rocky relationship for years. However, the Minnesota Department of Transportation regularly hires CSI to perform work. Upset that CSI intended to run its empty trucks on a certain county road, Large completely lowered the road weight limit on his own.

Without informing the company of the change, Large drove to the road, waited for the CSI trucks, then blocked the road with his car. Broad called three separate law enforcement agencies. Two refused to come out, but with Large continuing to detain the drivers, state troopers came out, weighed the vehicles, and handed out citations. The very next day, a supervisor called CSI to apologize and told them to throw the tickets away.

Large had no authority to act as a traffic officer, but CSI’s lawsuit was dismissed and their appeal was dismissed by the 8e Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeals court ruled that Large deserved qualified immunity because there was no previous decision ruling that a traffic engineer could not detain drivers. Basically, because Large found a very new way to violate constitutional rights, he escapes any responsibility.

America is built on the principle that no one is above the law, including those who enforce the laws. Government officials who act far beyond their authority should be no more protected from prosecution than anyone else. Bradshaw’s road rage shouldn’t be excused because he had a badge, and Large’s road stops shouldn’t be ignored because no one else in his position has ever behaved so horribly. The Institute for Justice is appealing both cases on behalf of the plaintiffs and asking the courts to exercise common sense.

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