Qualified immunity for police officers in excessive force/false arrest claim

If you sue the police for excessive force or false arrest, you have to worry about qualified immunity. There are ways around it, but I see a pattern in the Second Circuit, in which the Court of Appeals dismisses a Section 1983 claim on qualified immunity grounds, even after the district court allowed the case to proceed to a jury. That's what happened in this case.

The case is Calixto v. City of New York, a summary order issued on October 4. Qualified immunity is a legal protection enjoyed only by government defendants who are sued for civil rights violations. If the law was not clearly-established at the time of the violation, the defendants are off the hook even if, with 20-20 hindsight, they violated the plaintiff's constitutional rights. The idea is that close cases are decided in the defendant's favor, since they cannot be expected to know they are violating the law if the case law prior to that date was not sufficiently clear on that precise factual situation. In police cases, this immunity also arises when the police have to act quickly and make split-second judgments that seemed reasonable at the time, at least to a judge.

This was an excessive force and false arrest case. Someone reported that three men had committed a burglary. Plaintiff awoke with the news that her son was involved in an incident on the street, so she went to the scene and saw her intoxicated son holding a long, narrow stick, with other other. people. Then the police show up. Plaintiff told the young men to move aside, using the stick that her son had been holding, to shoo them away. This is how the district court describes what happened next:

As the officers approach the entrance of the residence, plaintiff turns, still holding the stick. In an instant, as seen clearly on the videotape. Officer Rodriguez seizes Ms. Calixto and throws her to the ground before rushing into the building. While Ms. Calixto remains on the ground, the other officers follow in pursuit of her son and his companions. Seconds later the video shows the officers leaving the building with Ms. Calixto's son in custody. After several minutes, newly arrived uniformed officers arrest Ms. Calixto. None of the three named officers—Rodriguez, Cespedes, and Delassantos—are nearby when she is handcuffed by the uniformed officers. Id Moments later. Officer Rodriguez re-enters the video, grabs Ms. Calixto, who is now in handcuffs, and rushes her out of the video's frame in the direction of police vehicles.
In short, plaintiff was thrown to the ground and arrested. The charges were dropped and she sued the police. The district court said plaintiff has a case for both claims (which would allow plaintiff to bring her claims to trial), but the Court of Appeals (Cabranes, Lynch and Droney) reverses, and plaintiff loses the case because the officers have qualified immunity. There will be no trial.

The Second Circuit reminds us that the Supreme Court has repeatedly endorsed qualified immunity as a defense and that "the inquiry must be undertaken in light of the specific context of the case.” The Circuit cites Mullenix v. Luna, 136 S.Ct. 305 (2015), for that proposition. We also know that "qualified immunity is available to all but an officer who, on an objective basis, is either plainly incompetent or knowingly violates the law." Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335 (1986). These principles kill off plaintiff's case. Here is the reasoning on plaintiff's excessive force claim:

As depicted in the surveillance footage, Rodriguez sprinted towards the doorway at a high speed, with no opportunity to ask Calixto to move. We agree with Appellants that an officer in Rodriguez’s position would have reasonable concerns, such as a suspect escaping or potentially setting a trap for the police, and that Rodriguez’s push of Calixto out of the way when she turned, raised a stick she was holding to eye level, and blocked his way as he rushed to the door, was a reasonable level of force in the specific circumstances presented. Regardless of whether, in hindsight, Calixto actually posed a substantial threat, or intended to impede the officer’s progress, Rodriguez acted reasonably in pushing her and the stick away from his person.
Say goodbye to the false arrest claim, as well. The officers had "arguable probable cause" to arrest her. "Arguable probable cause" is another qualified immunity principle. "The surveillance footage and Calixto’s admissions in her deposition indicate that there is no dispute of any material facts as to whether the police officers had at least arguable probable cause. Rodriguez observed Calixto block his path, and he was present and communicating with the other officers when she was arrested minutes later. The evidence thus makes clear that the defendant officers all would have had a reasonable basis to believe probable cause existed."