FOURTH CIRCUIT HANDS POLICE MAJOR VICTORIES
IN DUKE LACROSSE APPEAL[Posted December 17, 2012] A panel of the Fourth Circuit today dismisses most of the claims brought by several lacrosse players at Duke University in civil suits filed after the 2006 indictments on charges including rape and kidnapping. The ruling is handed down under the style Evans v. Chalmers. This case made national headlines when a stripper who performed at a party falsely claimed that some of the team members had raped her.
This case comes to us in an interlocutory appeal of the district court’s rulings against the police on qualified immunity defenses. After the charges against three players were dismissed, numerous suits followed by the members of the team, alleging state and federal causes of action. The primary defendant appears to have been disgraced former prosecutor Michael Nifong. Perhaps ironically, Nifong wasn’t a party to this interlocutory appeal; he didn’t challenge the district court’s refusal of his qualified immunity defense. The other defendants, including several police officers and the City of Durham, got almost everything they asked for today.
The appellate court reverses the district judge’s denial of qualified immunity, finding that the plaintiffs’ allegations of the officers’ conduct, measured by the proper legal standard, failed to state a claim sufficient to overcome the officers’ immunity. The City is out because of plain-old governmental immunity; that ruling is eminently foreseeable because the operation of a police department is among the most governmental of functions. The court allows one state-law claim (brought under North Carolina law) to go forward against two of the officers; but that one is nowhere near as sweeping as the allegations that perished today.
Judge Motz writes today/s majority opinion. She’s joined by Judge Wilkinson. Judge Gregory dissents only in part; he would have dismissed even the state-law claim that survives today.