A federal appeals court on Thursday ruled that a Mississippi police officer who dropped off an incoherent developmentally disabled man at the county line where he was later struck and killed by a passing vehicle could not be sued by the man’s family, reasoning that his conduct did not amount to a violation of “clearly established” law.
In a 2-1 decision reversing a lower court’s decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that Attala County Deputy Darrin Fleming was entitled to qualified immunity in the death of Gerald Simpson, and had no duty to protect the mentally impaired man from his violent death.
After Simpson was spotted walking in the middle of a highway, Fleming picked him up and put him in the back seat of his patrol car. Simpson was unable to communicate where he lived but pointed west. Fleming proceeded to drive west and did not ask for Simpson’s address or identification card. When he reached the county line sometime after dusk, Fleming pulled over and opened the door and let Simpson out on the side of the highway where he was later struck and killed by a passing motorist.
Fleming said that he “merely wished to assist Simpson by providing a courtesy ride home,” but Simpson’s family alleged that Fleming was acting pursuant to Attala County custom of picking up those viewed as vagrants and dropping them off in neighboring jurisdictions.
Under the doctrine of qualified immunity, government officials are shielded from civil liability for any conduct that does not violate a person’s “clearly established” constitutional rights. But in order for that right to be clearly established, the particular conduct of the alleged violator must have previously been established to such an extent as to “place the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate.”
The Court’s Reasoning
The court found that there was no “special relationship” created when Fleming chose to put Simpson in the backseat of his patrol car because there was no clearly established previous case that ruled such a relationship would have existed under the specific facts of this case.
“Here, while Simpson was killed by a motorist after Fleming dropped him off at the county line, the High Court in DeShaney held that states and their officials have no affirmative duty to protect individuals from violence by private actors,” the court wrote referring to the Supreme Court’s 1989 decision in DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services. “The Court explained That the State once took temporary custody of [the child] does not alter the analysis, for when it returned him to his father’s custody, it placed him in no worse position than that in which he would have been had it not acted at all; the State does not become the permanent guarantor of an individual’s safety by having once offered him shelter. “
As attorney and writer Luppe B. Luppen pointed out, however, the appellate court appeared to be stretching the actual holding of that case to fit the current circumstances.
In the 5th Circuit case we have state action—law enforcement officers driving the man to the county line and leaving him there as dusk set in.
The 5th Circuit says it’s never recognized a ‘state-created harm’ exception to Deshaney, but imo it hasn’t shown Deshaney controls.
— southpaw (@nycsouthpaw) February 21, 2020
Circuit Judge James L. Dennis dissented from the majority, writing that the facts show Fleming “clearly and obviously violated Simpson’s Fourth Amendment rights.”
Read the full decision below:
[image via DAMIEN MEYER/AFP/Getty Images)