Access to Justice

Austin v. City of Pasadena

In Austin v. City of Pasadena, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit considered whether qualified immunity protects jail officers from being sued for using excessive force after they repeatedly tased a detainee who was having a seizure.

Case Summary

In 2019, Jamal Shaw suffered an epileptic seizure while detained in the Pasadena city jail. In response, jailers held Shaw down, straddled him, and repeatedly tased him. Shaw then suffered a heart attack, and he died the next day as a result of the incident.

After Shaw’s death, his estate filed a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a statute that authorizes damages actions against state and local officials for constitutional violations. The estate alleged that the officers used excessive force in violation of Shaw’s Fourteenth Amendment due process rights when they physically restrained and repeatedly tased him without justification.

A federal district court dismissed the suit, however, ruling that the officers who tased Shaw were entitled to qualified immunity. The court reasoned that even if Shaw’s constitutional rights were violated, those rights were not “clearly established” because previous court decisions had not addressed circumstances precisely like those in this case. The estate appealed to the Fifth Circuit, and in October 2022 CAC filed an amicus curiae brief in support of Shaw’s estate.

Our brief first explained that qualified immunity is at odds with the text and history of Section 1983. That statute, enacted in a landmark civil rights law of the Reconstruction era, was meant to deter constitutional violations by state and local officials by providing victims with a federal damages remedy. While Congress may have intended Section 1983 to incorporate certain well-known immunities that were recognized by the common law at the time, today’s qualified immunity rules bear no relationship to those historically established standards. Given that modern qualified immunity is at odds with the text and history of Section 1983, courts should be especially vigilant in safeguarding the limits that the Supreme Court has placed on its application, not expand it further.

The brief next explained why the officers in this case were not entitled to qualified immunity even under the existing standards governing the doctrine. Contrary to the district court’s conclusion, decisions of the Fifth Circuit have clearly established that tasing or otherwise using violent force on a detainee who is not resisting is unconstitutionally excessive. And even in the absence of prior decisions addressing similar facts, the officers here would still not be entitled to qualified immunity. The Supreme Court has held that qualified immunity is not appropriate where general constitutional rules apply with “obvious clarity” to a particular situation, and where “any reasonable officer should have realized” that his or her conduct violated the Constitution. That was the case here: any reasonable officer would have recognized that restraining and repeatedly tasing a seizure victim who posed no threat to others was an excessive use of force. For all of these reasons, the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity, and the suit against them should’ve be allowed to proceed.

In July 2023, the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court and allowed the estate’s claims against the officers to proceed. At the time of the incident, the Fifth Circuit held, precedent clearly established the unreasonableness of the officers’ alleged actions. The Fifth Circuit’s opinion drew heavily from CAC’s amicus brief in describing that precedent.

Case Timeline

  • October 24, 2022

    CAC files amicus brief in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals

    Austin CAC Brief
  • May 5, 2023

    Fifth Circuit hears oral arguments

  • July 18, 2023

    Fifth Circuit issues its decision

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