Can any government employee—such as a highway engineer who was never granted any police authority whatsoever—pull you over and detain you? Yes, at least if one federal appeals court gets its way.
On July 18, 2017, Jonathan Large, a highway engineer for Mahnomen County, Minnesota, pretended to be a traffic cop by pulling over two trucks traveling peacefully on a highway and detaining the drivers for three hours as part of a personal vendetta he had with family-owned road construction company Central Specialties, Inc. (CSI). He then called a local sheriff’s office, tribal police and state troopers, asking them all to come and ticket the drivers because they were over the road’s weight limit, which he implemented less than an hour before specifically with stopping CSI’s trucks in mind. When state troopers finally came, they ticketed one driver but dismissed the citation the following day.
CSI sued Large for violating its constitutional rights, explaining that Large acted as a rogue government official when he targeted CSI and detained its trucks and employees for hours, even though he has no business pulling over any vehicle under any circumstances. In response, Large claimed to be protected by “qualified immunity.” In short, he argued, even if he wasn’t doing his job, he could never be held accountable for his actions, no matter how clearly they violated the Constitution, because he works for the government. Unless CSI could point to a specific court ruling in their federal circuit that ruled a county engineer could not act like a police officer, the court had to let him go scot-free.
Amazingly, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals—over a dissenting judge—sided with Large and granted him qualified immunity. But the Institute for Justice (IJ) is now appealing that case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“If there is one thing that proponents and opponents of qualified immunity agreed on, it is this,” said IJ Attorney Anya Bidwell. “Government officials can only claim qualified immunity if they were doing their jobs; officials can’t receive qualified immunity when their actions far exceed any reasonable interpretation of their authority.”
“Never in our company’s history have we had troubles using public roads; not ever,” said Allan Minnerath, the CSI’s president. “But Large arbitrarily lowered the limit from 5 tons per axle to 5 tons total, which would make it illegal for even many pickups or vans to use those roads. Large did this to target my company’s trucks—which were running empty on these roads—for his petty powerplay. He let other heavier trucks pass while he only stopped CSI trucks and detained the drivers. If it is a free country, that means we should be able to drive on roads just like everybody else, and any government official who abuses their power like this needs to be held to account.”
Bidwell added, “We want the Supreme Court to make it explicitly clear to Jonathan Large and any other government employee who would try to take the power of the police into their own hands: Defendants like him have the burden to show that they acted within the scope of their authority when they performed the unconstitutional action in question, and if they act outside of that authority, they must be held individually accountable.”
“Only four kinds of government employees in Minnesota can exercise police powers, and county engineer—the job held by Jonathan Large—is not one of them,” Bidwell said. “The courts must make it clear that Large should—and in fact must—leave the job of law enforcement to those entrusted with law enforcement. By unconstitutionally exceeding his authority, Large made real police waste their time.”
“As is, government officials are already routinely violating the rights of ordinary Americans but are escaping accountability because of the court-created doctrine of qualified immunity,” said IJ Attorney Alexa Gervasi. “As a result, citizens have been beaten in unprovoked attacks, detained illegally and even killed by those who work for the government. But the victims and their families have been denied their day in court to hold these bad actors accountable because courts across the nation—following the lead of the U.S. Supreme Court—refuse to enforce constitutional limits on government officials who, they say, are shielded by qualified immunity.”
“We are asking the Supreme Court to, at the very least, ensure that its own law on qualified immunity is followed and not expanded to protect those who act outside of their job descriptions,” Gervasi said. “The high court should send this case back to the Eighth Circuit to evaluate whether Large acted within the scope of his authority. If they do that, we are convinced that qualified immunity will be denied and our clients will be able to proceed to trial on its constitutional claims.”
“Since the beginning of this Republic, government employees have had to demonstrate that their actions were within the scope of their constitutional authority in order to receive protection from lawsuits,” said IJ Attorney Patrick Jaicomo. “The Supreme Court and at least six courts of appeals have ruled that they still must. The Eighth and Tenth Circuits should not be able to ignore this fundamental principle of accountability.”
“IJ is the leading advocate fighting for greater accountability among government officials and against blanket immunity for those who violate the constitutional rights of others,” said Scott Bullock, president and general counsel for the Institute for Justice. “The lawsuit is part of IJ’s Project on Immunity and Accountability, which is devoted to the simple idea that government officials are not above the rules; if citizens must follow the law, then government must follow the Constitution.”
More information on the case is available at: https://ij.org/case/minnesota-csi/.