Law enforcement to remain shielded from lawsuits for now as Supreme Court declines to review qualified immunity
As weeks of protest against police misconduct have raised questions about how best to increase accountability, the U.S. Supreme Court Monday chose not to review the qualified immunity doctrine, one of the foremost protections law enforcement officers have from punishment for misconduct.
The decision comes as a blow to these efforts but was not necessarily surprising, St. Edward's criminal justice professor Carsten Andresen said.
"The Supreme Court is very nervous about weighing in on anything that can have implications for how the police do their job," Andresen said. "I do think in the future, though, that this is going to be up for review. Lawyers are held responsible for the work they do, physicians are held responsible for the work they do … the legal community is going to start raising questions."
Qualified immunity defends government officials from being personally held liable for constitutional violations so long as they have not "violate[d] clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." As a result, police officers are often shielded from being sued, even in cases of excessive force, and a lack of cases overcoming this standard has made new lawsuits hard to win.
Questions about how to address the misconduct of police officers has been a topic of conversation around the country following the death of George Floyd at the hands of an officer in Minneapolis. Just over a month before Floyd's death, an Austin officer fatally shot Michael Ramos as he attempted to flee in his car. Ramos' case spurred a similar push in Austin.
Without qualified immunity for police officers, or at least a lower bar for overcoming it, Ramos' family might be able to sue the officer that shot him, Christopher Taylor, for damages, Andresen said.
Hesitancy by the Supreme Court to take up qualified immunity, or any case that could interfere with the ability of law enforcement to do its job, will likely continue for a while, Andresen said. For the court to take up any major changes to law enforcement, Andresen said it would likely take a very compelling case, and even then it could be 10 years from when the case begins before the court makes a decision.
However, the recent ubiquity of videos capturing law enforcement misconduct could potentially speed things up or affect how the court makes its decision, Andresen said.
"I'm a criminal justice researcher. I've always known that there are these problems, but knowing these problems (exist) and then seeing an actual video, it's so much worse in some cases than I might have imagined."
By Jonathan Lee
The Planning Commission was split Tuesday on whether to help save an eclectic lakefront estate from demolition by zoning it historic amid concerns over tax breaks and the likelihood that a previous owner participated in segregation as a business owner.
The property in question, known as the Delisle House, is located at 2002 Scenic Drive in Tarrytown. The main house, with Spanish and Modern influences, was built in 1923 by Raymond Delisle, an optician. A Gothic Revival accessory apartment was built in 1946. The current owner applied to demolish the structures in order to build a new home.'
Historic preservationists, for their part, overwhelmingly support historic zoning, which would preserve the buildings in perpetuity. The Historic Landmark Commission unanimously voted to initiate historic zoning in July, citing architectural significance, landscape features and association to historic figures. City staffers recommend historic zoning, calling both structures one-of-a-kind examples of vernacular architecture.
Tarrytown neighbors have also banded together to stop the demolition. Many have written letters, and a few spoke at the meeting. “How could anyone buy this property with the intent of destroying it?” Ila Falvey said. “I think it’s an architectural treasure.”
Michael Whellan, an attorney representing the property owner, said that the claims made by preservationists are shaky. The buildings are run down, he said, and have had substantial renovations. A structural engineer hired by the owner said any attempt at preservation would involve tearing down and rebuilding – an undertaking Whellan said would likely cost millions.
Whellan also argued that any historical significance derived from the property’s association with Delisle and longtime owner C.H. Slator is dubious. “These men are not noted for any civic, philanthropic or historic impact,” he said.
What’s more, according to Whellan, Slator likely participated in segregation as the owner of the Tavern on North Lamar Boulevard between 1953 and 1960.
A city staffer, however, said she found no evidence to support the claim. “We would never landmark a property where a segregationist lived, or there was a racist person,” Kimberly Collins with the Historic Preservation Office said.
Commissioner Awais Azhar couldn’t support historic zoning in part due to lingering uncertainty about Slator. “Focusing on that factor is not here to disparage an individual or family. It is not about playing the race card. This is an important assertion for us to consider as Planning commissioners,” Azhar said.
Commissioner Carmen Llanes Pulido said that allegations of racism should come as no surprise. “We’re talking about white male property owners in the 1950s, in Austin, on the west side – and of course they were racist,” she said. But she argued that allowing the house to be demolished based on these grounds does nothing to help people of color who have been harmed by racism and segregation.
The question of tax breaks was also controversial. Michael Gaudini, representing the property owner, said that the tax breaks associated with historic zoning would exacerbate inequality by shifting property tax burdens to less affluent communities. City staffers estimate that the property, appraised at $3.5 million, would get either a $8,500 or $16,107 property tax break annually, depending on whether a homestead exemption is applied.
Commissioner Grayson Cox preferred the commission focus not on tax breaks but on whether the structures merit preservation. “To me, nothing in the historic preservation criteria lists, is this person deserving of a tax break or not?”
Azhar, on the other hand, said he plans to propose a code amendment getting rid of city property tax breaks for historic properties.
The commission fell one vote short of recommending historic zoning, with six commissioners in support and three opposed. Azhar and commissioners Claire Hempel and Greg Anderson voted against.
The odds of City Council zoning over an owner’s wishes are slim. Nine out of 11 members must vote in favor, and there have only been a handful of such cases over the past several decades.
What's new in Austin food & drink this week:
- Nau's Enfield Drug closing after losing their lease. Did McGuire Moorman Lambert buy the building, with its vintage soda fountain?
- Nixta Taqueria Chef Edgar Rico named to Time Magazine's Time 100 Next influencer list, after winning a James Beard Award earlier this year.
- Question: From what BBQ joint did pescatarian Harry Styles order food this week?
- Austin Motel is opening the pool and pool bar Wednesday nights in October for Freaky Floats.
- Vincent's on the Lake closing due to "economic conditions and low water levels [at Lake Travis]."
- Cenote has closed its Windsor Park location. The East Cesar Chavez location remains open.
- The Steeping Room on N. Lamar has closed.
- Local startup It's Skinnyscored new financing for its gluten-free pasta business.
- P. Terry's opened a new location in Kyle, at 18940 IH-35.