533 U.S. 194 (2001), 99-1977, Saucier v. Katz

Docket Nº:No. 99-1977
Citation:533 U.S. 194, 121 S.Ct. 2151, 150 L.Ed.2d 272, 69 U.S.L.W. 4481
Party Name:SAUCIER v. KATZ et al.
Case Date:June 18, 2001
Court:United States Supreme Court

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533 U.S. 194 (2001)

121 S.Ct. 2151, 150 L.Ed.2d 272, 69 U.S.L.W. 4481



KATZ et al.

No. 99-1977

United States Supreme Court

June 18, 2001

Argued March 20, 2001



Respondent Katz, president of respondent In Defense of Animals, filed a suit pursuant to Bivens v. Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388, against, inter alios, petitioner Saucier, a military policeman. Katz alleged, among other things, that Saucier had violated his Fourth Amendment rights by using excessive force in arresting him while he protested during Vice President Gore's speech at a San Francisco army base. The District Court declined to grant Saucier summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds. In affirming, the Ninth Circuit made a two-part qualified immunity inquiry. First, it found that the law governing Saucier's conduct was clearly established when the incident occurred. It therefore moved to a second step: to determine if a reasonable officer could have believed, in light of the clearly established law, that his conduct was lawful. The court concluded that this step and the merits of a Fourth Amendment excessive force claim are identical, since both concern the objective reasonableness of the officer's conduct in light of the circumstances the officer faced at the scene. Thus, it found, summary judgment based on qualified immunity was inappropriate.


1. A qualified immunity ruling requires an analysis not susceptible of fusion with the question whether unreasonable force was used in making the arrest. The Ninth Circuit's approach cannot be reconciled with Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635. A qualified immunity defense must be considered in proper sequence. A ruling should be made early in the proceedings so that the cost and expenses of trial are avoided where the defense is dispositive. Such immunity is an entitlement not to stand trial, not a defense from liability. Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526. The initial inquiry is whether a constitutional right would have been violated on the facts alleged, for if no right would have been violated, there is no need for further inquiry into immunity. However, if a violation could be made out on a favorable view of the parties' submissions, the next, sequential step is whether the right was clearly established. This inquiry must be undertaken in light of the case's specific context, not as a broad general proposition. The relevant, dispositive inquiry is whether it would be clear to a reasonable

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officer that the conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted. See Wilson v. Layne, 526 U.S. 603, 615. The Ninth Circuit's approach—to deny summary judgment if a material issue of fact remains on the excessive force claim—could undermine the goal of qualified immunity to avoid excessive disruption of government and permit the resolution of many insubstantial claims on summary judgment. Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818. If the law did not put the officer on notice that his conduct would be clearly unlawful, summary judgment based on qualified immunity is appropriate. The Ninth Circuit concluded that qualified immunity is duplicative in an excessive force case, thus eliminating the need for the second step. In holding that qualified immunity applied in the Fourth Amendment context just as it would for any other official misconduct claim, the Anderson Court rejected the argument that there is no distinction between the reasonableness standard for warrantless searches and the qualified immunity inquiry. In an attempt to distinguish Anderson, Katz claims that the subsequent Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, decision set forth an excessive force analysis indistinguishable from qualified immunity, thus rendering the separate immunity inquiry superfluous and inappropriate in such cases. Contrary to his arguments, the immunity and excessive force inquiries remain distinct after Graham. Graham sets forth factors relevant to the merits of a constitutional excessive force claim, which include the severity of the crime, whether the suspect poses a threat to the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight. Id., at 396. If an officer reasonably, but mistakenly, believed that a suspect was likely to fight back, for instance, the officer would be justified in using more force than in fact was needed. The qualified immunity inquiry's concern, on the other hand, is to acknowledge that reasonable mistakes can be made as to the legal constraints on particular police conduct. An officer might correctly perceive all of the relevant facts, but have a mistaken understanding as to whether a particular amount of force is legal in those circumstances. Pp. 200-207.

2. Petitioner was entitled to qualified immunity. Assuming that a constitutional violation occurred under the facts alleged, the question is whether this general prohibition was the source for clearly established law that was contravened in the circumstances. In the circumstances presented to petitioner, which included the duty to protect the Vice President's safety and security from persons unknown in number, there was no clearly established rule prohibiting him from acting as he did. This conclusion is confirmed by the uncontested fact that the force used—dragging Katz from the area and shoving him while placing

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him into a van—was not so excessive that Katz suffered hurt or injury. Pp. 207-209.

194 F.3d 962, reversed and remanded.

Kennedy, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and O'Connor, Scalia, and Thomas, JJ., joined, and in which Souter, J., joined as to Parts I and II. Ginsburg, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Stevens and Breyer, JJ., joined, post, p. 209. Souter, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, post, p. 217.

Deputy Solicitor General Clement argued the cause for petitioner. On the briefs were former Solicitor General Waxman, Acting Solicitor General Underwood, Assistant Attorney General Ogden, Jeffrey A. Lamken, Barbara L. Herwig, and Edward Himmelfarb.

J. Kirk Boyd argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief was David H. Williams. [*]

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Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this case a citizen alleged excessive force was used to arrest him. The arresting officer asserted the defense of qualified immunity. The matter we address is whether the requisite analysis to determine qualified immunity is so intertwined with the question whether the officer used excessive force in making the arrest that qualified immunity and constitutional violation issues should be treated as one question, to be decided by the trier of fact. The Court of Appeals held the inquiries do merge into a single question. We now reverse and hold that the ruling on qualified immunity requires an analysis not susceptible of fusion with the question whether unreasonable force was used in making the arrest.


In autumn of 1994, the Presidio Army Base in San Francisco was the site of an event to celebrate conversion of the base to a national park. Among the speakers was Vice President Albert Gore, Jr., who attracted several hundred observers from the military and the general public. Some in attendance were not on hand to celebrate, however. Respondent Elliot Katz was concerned that the Army's Letterman Hospital would be used for conducting experiments on animals. (Katz was president of a group called In Defense of Animals. Although both he and the group are respondents here, the issues we discuss center upon Katz, and we refer to him as "respondent.") To voice opposition to the possibility that the hospital might be used for experiments, respondent brought with him a cloth banner, approximately 4 by 3 feet, that read "Please Keep Animal Torture Out of Our National Parks." In the past, as respondent was aware, members of the public had been asked to leave the military base when they engaged in certain activities, such as distributing handbills; and he kept the banner concealed under his jacket as he walked through the base.

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The area designated for the speakers contained seating for the general public, separated from the stage by a waist-high fence. Respondent sat in the front row of the public seating area. At about the time Vice President Gore began speaking, respondent removed the banner from his jacket, started to unfold it, and walked toward the fence and speakers' platform.

Petitioner Donald Saucier is a military police officer who was on duty that day. He had been warned by his superiors of the possibility of demonstrations, and respondent had been identified as a potential protester. Petitioner and Sergeant Steven Parker—also a military police officer, but not a party to the suit—recognized respondent and moved to intercept him as he walked toward the fence. As he reached the barrier and began placing the banner on the other side, the officers grabbed respondent from behind, took the banner, and rushed him out of the area. Each officer had one of respondent's arms, half-walking, half-dragging him, with his feet "barely touching the ground." App. 24. Respondent was wearing a visible, knee-high leg brace, although petitioner later testified he did not remember noticing it at the time. Saucier and Parker took respondent to a nearby military van, where, respondent claims, he was shoved or thrown inside. Id., at 25. The reason for the shove remains unclear. It seems agreed that respondent placed his feet somewhere on the outside of the van, perhaps the bumper, but there is a dispute whether he did so to resist. As a result of the shove, respondent claims, he fell to the floor of the van, where he caught himself just in time to avoid any injury. The officers drove respondent to...

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