May 17, 2019: When Deputy Nicholas Kehagias showed up at John Livingston’s door, Mr. Livingston asked if he had a warrant. The deputy didn’t, and Mr. Livingston refused to let him in. But Kehagias forced the door open anyway and tried to arrest him. Even though Mr. Livingston was unarmed and not resisting arrest, Kehagias held him face-down on the floor, tased and pepper-sprayed him repeatedly, and beat him, all before fatally shooting him.
Mr. Livingston was not the only person to receive this kind of treatment from the Harnett County Sheriff’s Department in North Carolina. Christine Broom was arrested in her own home after officers entered without a warrant or consent. Michael Cardwell was body-slammed and pepper-sprayed in the face even though he was not resisting arrest or committing a crime – just giving a speech about his frustrations with getting medical care as a veteran. Tyrone Bethune and Ryan Holloway were body-slammed on their own porch without reason. Wesley Wright was grabbed in his home after a warrantless entry, dragged outside into his yard, pepper-sprayed for a prolonged period, and arrested without cause.
To address this disturbing pattern of police misconduct, the Livingston family and these individuals filed a lawsuit against a group of officers in the Sheriff’s Department, as well the department itself. The police responded that what they did was protected by qualified immunity, a standard that gives police officers the benefit of the doubt when they use force against civilians. Their brief caught our attention, raising concerns that this extraordinarily broad view of qualified immunity could prevent police from being held accountable even for clearly unconstitutional excessive force. Together with North Carolina Advocates for Justice, the Public Justice Center filed an amicus brief in May challenging the police associations’ assertions.
In the PJC and NCAJ’s brief, we argue that qualified immunity should not shield officers from taking responsibility for assaulting and killing people. The brief refutes the police arguments justifying their position, explaining that violence against police is decreasing, not increasing, while the militarization of the police is increasing the number of civilians that police kill. Despite this reality, qualified immunity is tilted in favor of the police because it requires courts to view the events from the officer’s perspective, including split-second decisions that are influenced by officers’ implicit biases against people of color and people with disabilities. Courts also often avoid setting boundaries for how the constitution permits officers to act. We asked the court, therefore, to address the unconstitutionality of the defendants’ actions in its decision, rather than continue the practice of avoiding that critical issue. Finally, by relying on social science research and data about police violence, we described to the court how police violence disproportionately occurs in low-income neighborhoods and against people of color, as well as how people with mental illness are more vulnerable to police violence. We hope that our brief will encourage the court to unequivocally state that unwarranted police violence against civilians is not acceptable under the law.