WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to take up a challenge to a legal defense called qualified immunity that has been employed to shield police officers accused of unlawfully using excessive force in a case involving a Michigan police officer who fatally shot a man as he drove away in a car.
The justices rejected an appeal by the widow of Antonino Gordon of a lower court’s decision to grant Royal Oak, Michigan police officer Keith Bierenga qualified immunity for shooting Gordon in 2018 in a drive-thru line at a White Castle hamburger restaurant while investigating Gordon for prior traffic violations.
The qualified immunity defense protects police and other government officials from civil litigation in certain circumstances, permitting lawsuits only when an individual’s “clearly established” statutory or constitutional rights have been violated.
A 2020 Reuters investigation revealed how qualified immunity, with the Supreme Court’s continual refinements, has made it easier for police officers to kill or injure civilians with impunity.
Bierenga investigated Gordon, who was driving a BMW, for making a series of traffic violations that nearly caused collisions, according to legal filings. Bierenga located Gordon in the drive-thru lane and attempted to block his exit. As the officer approached the BMW with his gun drawn, Gordon began to maneuver the car to get around Bierenga, who at one point moved out of the direct path of Gordon’s vehicle.
As Gordon drove away Bierenga fired four shots into the driver’s side of the car, striking the man, who continued to drive away until he lost consciousness and crashed into an oncoming car, according to legal filings. He died in a hospital.
Gordon’s blood alcohol content was recorded at more than three times the legal limit in Michigan, according to court papers.
Gordon’s widow Nita Gordon sued in federal court, accusing the police officer of using excessive force in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.
While a trial judge denied Bierenga’s request for qualified immunity, the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision in 2021, throwing out Nita Gordon’s claim. The 6th Circuit ruled that no prior case was similar enough to the situation Bierenga encountered to “clearly establish” that his conduct was unlawful.
Nita Gordon appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.
“The Constitution does not permit officers to kill fleeing suspects who pose no imminent danger to the officer or the public,” her lawyers wrote in the appeal.
Bierenga’s lawyers told the Supreme Court that qualified immunity “is intended to provide officials with the security to go about their constitutional duties, without the threat of burdensome litigation hanging over them with every move.”
(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)