Access to Justice

Cox v. Wilson

In Cox v. Wilson, the Supreme Court is being asked to consider whether a police officer who shot an unarmed man, rendering him a quadriplegic, is immune from being sued for violating the Fourth Amendment.

Case Summary

In 2014, Don Wilson, a deputy in the Clear Creek, Colorado Sheriff’s Office, responded to reports of a motorist driving erratically on the interstate.  A brief police chase ensued before a traffic jam forced the motorist, Cody Cox, to come to a stop.  At that point, Deputy Wilson exited his patrol car, approached Cox’s vehicle, and shot Cox in the neck through the passenger window, rendering him a quadriplegic.  Cox was unarmed.

Cox filed a lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a statute that authorizes damages actions against state and local officials for constitutional violations, asserting that Wilson violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures, as incorporated against the states through the Fourteenth Amendment.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit held that Wilson was entitled to qualified immunity because any rights he may have violated were not “clearly established” at the time of the incident.  Cox then filed a petition for a writ of certiorari, asking the Supreme Court to review the decision.

CAC filed an amicus brief in support of the certiorari petition, urging the Supreme Court to grant the petition, reverse the lower court’s decision, and to use this opportunity to reform its qualified immunity doctrine.  As our brief explains, qualified immunity has no grounding in the text or history of 42 U.S.C. § 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 intended Section 1983 to incorporate certain well-known immunities that were recognized by the common law at the time, today’s qualified immunity rules have no relationship to those historically established standards.  Instead, these rules often make it impossible to hold officials accountable for their constitutional violations.

Furthermore, our brief explains why today’s qualified immunity doctrine is at odds with the purposes of both the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.  The Framers of the Fourth Amendment viewed the Amendment as a bulwark against unjustified seizures of persons.  They expected that victims of such seizures would be able to protect their rights, and deter future violations, through jury trials and damages awards.

After the Civil War, the Framers of the Fourteenth Amendment sought to expand this protection and other safeguards of the Bill of Rights to cover state governments, which were then flagrantly violating individual rights across the South, including through brutal law enforcement violence against formerly enslaved people and their allies.  Congress later passed Section 1983 to help people vindicate these rights by holding state and local officials financially accountable for their constitutional violations.  Today, however, the Supreme Court’s qualified immunity doctrine allows those same types of violations to go unchecked, undermining the broad, remedial aim of the law that Congress passed.

Case Timeline

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