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SCOTUS Considers Reexamining Qualified Immunity for Police. Here’s What That Means

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  • The Supreme Court is considering whether or not to hear cases involving questions of qualified immunity.
  • Qualified immunity is a judicial doctrine that originally intended to protect government officials and police from frivolous lawsuits.
  • But over time, courts have interpreted it to basically let officials violate people’s constitutional rights without legal consequences and allow police brutality to go unpunished.
  • House and Senate Democrats also introduced a sweeping police reform bill Monday that included a provision to reform qualified immunity, however, the Trump administration has expressed opposition to changing the doctrine.

What Is Qualified Immunity?

The Supreme Court this week is weighing whether or not it will reexamine the controversial legal doctrine known as qualified immunity that has been used to protect police and government officials from being sued for their conduct.

As protests over the death of George Floyd continue amid mounting pressure to drastically reform the police, the technical and previously little-known doctrine has taken center stage at protests, as well as legal and political debates.

Qualified immunity is a judicial doctrine first established in the 1960s. It was initially intended to protect government officials, including police officers, from frivolous lawsuits.

The idea behind the doctrine was that officials will do their jobs better if they are not worried about being sued. In the context of the police, it was intended to give them some breathing room to make quick decisions in dangerous situations.

One of the most important things to know about qualified immunity is that it is not outlined in the Constitution or under any law. 

The doctrine is a creation of the judiciary system and over time, courts have interpreted it to basically give officials and officers incredibly broad legal immunity from violating an individual’s constitutional rights.

The Problem With “Clearly Established”

In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled in Harlow v. Fitzgerald that, “government officials performing discretionary functions, generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”

To those of us not versed in constitutional law, that may sound like the Supreme Court ruled that government officials cannot violate statutory or constitutional rights— but the key phrase here is “clearly established.”

Since the Harlow decision, The Supreme Court has repeatedly enforced an incredibly narrow definition of “clearly established” so that cases heard by lower courts must be based on extremely specific precedents.

In fact, the definition is so narrow that it basically requires a court to throw out a case unless there is a prior court ruling on another case that involved a nearly identical situation.

Here’s an example: In 2019, two police officers approached a woman named Shaniz West because they believed her ex-boyfriend—  who had an outstanding felony arrest warrant—  was inside her house.

West gave police permission to enter her home, and they proceeded to smash windows and use tear gas. 

West sued, but two members of a three-judge panel ruled that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because there was no past case that had explicitly determined that police are not allowed to smash windows or fire tear gas in a house that a homeowner had given them permission to enter.

In 2001, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that intended to give courts more power to declare more conduct illegal. 

That ruling required judges hearing qualified immunity cases to decide two questions: First, whether the conduct of the official or officer violated a constitutional right. If the judge found they had, the next step was to determine if the action was illegal because it violated a “clearly established” precedent from a prior ruling.

But in 2009, the Supreme Court decided that the two-step framework was not mandatory. Now, according to a Reuters investigation, most judges just skip over the first question and go right to deciding if the defendant violated a very specific past precedent.

In other words, judges are more likely to decide that a government official or police officer is immune from a lawsuit without ruling whether that person acted illegally.

That decision had a chilling effect.

“Because of a 2009 Supreme Court decision, lower courts have most often dismissed police brutality lawsuits on grounds that there is no prior court decision with nearly identical facts.” Nina Totenberg wrote for NPR

“Several recent studies, including one conducted by Reuters, have found that dozens of cases involving horrific facts, just as bad as the one involving Floyd, were thrown out of court on the grounds that there was no ‘clearly established; court precedent forbidding the conduct at issue,” she added.

Even beyond that, the Reuters investigation also found that since 2005, “the courts have shown an increasing tendency to grant immunity in excessive force cases.”

What Next?

Critics of qualified immunity argue that it has become a Catch-22, where someone cannot seek justice for a rights violation just because courts have not seen or ruled on that very specific violation before. 

Many also argue that the doctrine has basically become a tool to let police brutality go unpunished in many circumstances and to deny people constitutional rights.

However, others argue that changing qualified immunity would diminish the ability of the police to protect and serve.

“I don’t think you need to reduce immunity to go after the bad cops, because that would result certainly in police pulling back,” Attorney General Bill Barr said on “Face the Nation” Sunday. 

“Policing is the toughest job in the country,” he continued. “And I, frankly, think that we have generally the vast, overwhelming majority of police are good people. They’re civic-minded people who believe in serving the public. They do so bravely. They do so righteously.”

As for the future of qualified immunity, it is currently uncertain.

While the Supreme Court decides whether or not to hear any of the half a dozen cases involving qualified immunity it is currently considering, Congress has begun to take matters into its own hands.

On Monday, both House and Senate Democrats proposed a sweeping police reform bill that, among other things, would change qualified immunity so plaintiffs could recover damages.

However, it remains unclear if Republicans will support the bill. Separately, a spokeswoman for President Donald Trump specifically expressed skepticism about the proposed reform to qualified immunity.

“He hasn’t reviewed it yet,” the spokeswoman said of the bill. “He’s looking at a number of proposals.”

“But there are some non-starters in there, I would say, particularly on the immunity issue,” she continued before referencing Barr’s remarks.

See what others are saying: (Reuters) (NPR) (Vox

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Conservatives are Mad at “Woke” Xbox for Minor Climate-Related Updates

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The fury comes after Xbox announced it was slightly altering existing consoles to better utilize and save energy.


Same War, New Battlefield

Mere days after M&M canceled their “spokescandies” due to backlash from the right, led largely by Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, conservatives have found a new front for their ongoing culture war: Xbox.

Carlson spent months complaining that small character redesigns were “woke” because they made the animated anthropomorphized M&M’s — in his own words — “less sexy.” His campaign finally proved successful on Monday when the company announced it would be doing away with the spokescandies and replacing them with actress Maya Rudolph.

Conservatives, now facing a sudden dearth of non-issues to complain about, quickly found a new issue to rage against. Xbox announced in a blog post earlier this month that it is making minor updates to lower its environmental impact as part of an effort to reach Microsoft’s goal of being carbon-negative by 2030.

Now, instead of having an Xbox wake up to update games, apps, and software during random times of the night, it will do that at a time of night when a user’s local energy grid is generating the most power it can from renewable sources. 

Xbox also said it would automatically update some older consoles to a power-saving mode that aims to reduce electricity consumption when it is turned off — a feature that is already the default on newer consoles.

According to The Verge, the only difference for users is that an Xbox in power-saving mode takes around 15 seconds to boot up instead of doing so immediately as the console does in “sleep” mode. The change is a small price to pay for what the outlet described as “significant” energy savings.

Xbox Under Fire

To many leading conservative voices, the minimal shifts were just another example of “woke” culture. 

While discussing M&M’s spokescandies Tuesday morning, “Fox and Friends” co-host Ainsley Earhardt brought up Xbox’s new changes with Fox radio host Jimmy Failla.

“So Xbox has also announced that they’re going woke too, you know, because of climate change,” Earhardt said.

“I mean, it’s crazy what they’re doing, but we understand what this is. It’s not that it’s actually going to offset emissions, okay — the level of reduction is infinitesimal,”  Failla claimed, without evidence. “But they’re trying to recruit your kids into climate politics at an earlier age; make them climate conscious now.”

“Yeah, I didn’t think of that — you’re right, they’re going after the children,” Earhardt agreed, despite the fact that internal data from Microsoft shows just around 10% of Xbox owners are under the age of 18.

Other prominent conservatives also did their part to bait Americans into anger on social media, including America’s Foundation, which posted a tweet stating that “the woke brigade is after video games.”

The post linked an article from the right-wing website TheBlaze, which asserted that “Xbox will force gamers to power down to fight climate change.”  That, however, is false — Xbox has said users can switch back and change the settings any time they want

Still, top lawmakers continued to share the article and spread its false claims, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tx.).

“First gas stoves, then your coffee, now they’re gunning for your Xbox,” he wrote in the post, which was flagged by Twitter and given an “added context” warning.

The same warning, however, was not placed in a very similar post by Rep. Troy Nehls (R-Tx.), who also shared the article.

“They want to take your guns. They want to take your gas stoves. And now they want to take your Xbox. What’s next?” he wrote.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The Daily Beast) (VICE)

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Washington State Launches Investigation Into Abuse at Private Special Ed. Schools

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Allegations include staff kicking a fourth-grader and dragging a child with autism around by his leg.


Abuse Allegations

Washington State’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) has launched an investigation into a system of private schools for kids with disabilities after ProPublica and the Seattle Times reported on allegations of abuse.

The series of articles focused on Northwest School of Innovative Learning (NWSOIL). NWSOIL is a set of private schools that serve 500 Washington public school students with serious disabilities. ProPublica and the Seattle Times found years of complaints from parents and school districts against NWSOIL alleging abuse, overuse of isolation rooms, and unqualified aides teaching instead of certified professionals.

One district claimed NWSOIL staff kicked a fourth-grader. Another alleged that a child with autism was dragged around by his thigh.

Many former NWSOIL employees also claim that they were pressured by their parent company to to enroll more students and skimp on basic resources, like staffing.

Investigation Launched

In a seven-page letter, OSPI reminded NWSOIL of its authority to revoke or suspend a school’s approval, meaning that it could shut NWSOIL down. 

“Given the serious nature of the allegations made in the articles, OSPI is examining what, if any, actions need to be taken with respect to Northwest SOIL’s approval to contract with Washington school districts,” Tania May, assistant superintendent for special education at OSPI, wrote in the letter.

OSPI has demanded any records of mistreatment, maltreatment, abuse, or neglect as well as documents pertaining to restraint or isolation of students and calls to the police. They are also seeking information about the student-to-teacher ratio and staff qualifications. 

In the letter, OSPI claims that all of this was previously unknown to them as well as to police, Child Protective Services, and local school districts. They are asking NWSOIL for an explanation as to why the allegations were not reported. 

NWSOIL defended itself in a public statement.

“Use of restraints and seclusion are always used as a last response when a student is at imminent risk of hurting themselves or others, it said. “We strongly deny any allegation that we understaff and/or pressure staff to increase admissions in order to maximize profits.” 

Washington state representatives are considering a reform bill that will give them more oversight on the publicly funded system of private special education schools. 

In this legislation, OSPI and at least one district that sends students to this program would be required to visit before approving the contract. It would also standardize district agreements with programs like NWSOIL, including financial safeguards to make sure funds are being used appropriately.

See the full series: (ProPublica) (The Seattle Times)

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Mass Shootings in Half Moon Bay, Oakland Rock California

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Just since Saturday, at least 19 people have been killed and 17 have been injured in mass shootings in California.


California Sees Third Attack in Under a Week

Two California localities experienced separate mass shootings Monday, just days after an attacker killed 11 and injured nine others in a suburb of Los Angeles.

The first of the most recent shootings took place in Half Moon Bay, a small coastal town about 30 miles outside of San Francisco, where a gunman killed seven and critically injured an eighth at two different locations.

According to authorities, police were dispatched to the first location around 2:20 pm and found four people shot to death and a fifth victim also suffering gunshot wounds. Shortly after, three more people were found dead at another site nearby.

About two hours later, police discovered the suspect in his car in the parking lot of a San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office substation with a semiautomatic handgun in the vehicle that officials later confirmed he had purchased legally.

Sheriff Christina Corpus said the man was taken into custody “without incident” and is “fully cooperating.” He has been identified as a 66-year-old Half Moon Bay resident of Asian descent.

Currently, the gunman’s motive is unknown, but the Sheriff told reporters Monday that both of the locations he targeted were nurseries, and it has since been reported that they were mushroom farms.

“All evidence we have points to this being an instance of workplace violence. The Mountain Mushroom Farm, the first location, is where the subject was employed,” Corpus said in a press conference Tuesday, though she added that, so far, the “only known connection between the victims and the suspect is that they may have been coworkers.”

As of writing, it remains unclear why he targeted the second location. A mushroom farm called Concord Farms has told reporters that it was the site of the second shooting — which a law enforcement official confirmed to The Washington Post.

In a statement to the media, a spokesperson said the farm had “no past knowledge” of the alleged gunman or his possible motives. Little has been released about the victims, though Corpus said Tuesday they were all adults and a “mixture of Asian and Hispanic descent,” some of whom were migrants. 

Authorities had previously stated that, because people both live and work on the farms, children were among those who witnessed the shooting. However, on Tuesday, one official walked that back and said while children were indeed in the vicinity, police do not have information about specific witnesses.

Just hours after the violence in Half Moon Bay, seven people were injured, and one other was killed during a shooting at a gas station in Oakland. Very little has been reported about the incident, but police have said that the shooting was “between several individuals.”

Renewed Calls for Gun Control

Californians continue to reel from the rapid succession of mass shootings in a state known for its strict gun control laws.

According to Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit that advocates against gun violence, the state ranks No. 1 in the country for gun law strength. An analysis led by the organization found that California has the sixth-lowest rate of gun ownership and the eighth-lowest gun death rate.

Many of California’s top lawmakers have argued that the state’s relatively low gun violence statistics emphasize the need for more federal regulations.

“The Second Amendment’s becoming a suicide pact,” Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) told CBS News in an interview.

“We’ll continue to find whatever loopholes we can and continue to lead the national conversation on gun safety reform. And the data bares out. It works. It saves lives,” he continued. “California’s 37% lower than the death rate of the rest of the nation, and yet, with all that evidence, no one on the other side seems to give a damn. I can’t get anything done in Congress.”

Following the Monterey Park shooting, U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Ca.), alongside other Democratic colleagues, introduced two gun control bills in the upper chamber. The first would ban assault weapons, while the second aims to raise the minimum age to purchase assault weapons from 18 to 21.

President Joe Biden quickly threw his support behind the measures, urging Congress to pass them.

“The majority of the American people agree with this commonsense action,” he said in a statement Monday. “There can be no greater responsibility than to do all we can to ensure the safety of our children, our communities and our nation.”

Editor’s Note: At Rogue Rocket, we make it a point to not include the names and pictures of mass murders, suspected mass murderers, or those accused of committing violent crimes who may have been seeking attention or infamy. Therefore, we will not be linking to other sources, as they may contain these details.

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