Published on: Thursday, August 27, 2020

In Abdur-Rahim v. City of Columbus, Ohio, et al., 19-4253 (Aug. 26, 2020), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that a Columbus police officer has qualified immunity from liability for pepper spraying a protester during a 2017 demonstration, but concluded that a lawsuit could proceed over whether the officer’s actions were reckless or malicious.

Protesters block Columbus, Ohio intersection for 45 minutes, begin to disperse after police pepper spray them. One protester lingers but then retreats, hunching over from the effects of the pepper spray. An officer, Justin Masters, put a hand on her shoulder, stopping her briefly, and pepper sprays her directly in the face. The District Court had ruled that Masters did not have qualified immunity, rejecting the city’s contention that Masters acted within the law. The city of Columbus appealed, arguing that Masters' actions were within the law and that the officer has immunity from civil liability.

On appeal, excessive force? Sixth Circuit: There is no prior case that says so (nor is there one now in light of this decision), so the officer is entitled to qualified immunity and is therefore protected from liability. But the plaintiff's state law claims can proceed because, "A jury here could conclude that Masters acted recklessly or with malicious purpose in spraying Abdur-Rahim's face."

Qualified immunity is a doctrine that shields government officials like police officers from being held personally liable for their actions on the job, additional information available here.