The 96-Year-Old Brooklyn Judge Standing Up to the Supreme Court
Posted June 14, 2018 6:04 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — A 96-year-old federal judge in Brooklyn had a “Hey, kids, get off my lawn” moment this week.
The kids in question: the U.S. Supreme Court.
The (metaphorical) lawn: the public’s power to hold the police accountable for misconduct and abuse.
In a spirited decision issued Monday, the judge, Jack B. Weinstein, argued that the justices had gone too far in a pair of recent rulings expanding qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that protects law enforcement officers from being sued for actions they perform on the job. Weinstein complained that the broadened doctrine now protects “all but the plainly incompetent.”
“The Supreme Court’s recent emphasis on shielding public officials and federal and local law enforcement means many individuals who suffer a constitutional deprivation will have no redress,” he wrote.
The unusual rebuke came in a case in which Weinstein denied immunity to four Brooklyn officers accused of having assaulted a man after he had refused to let them into his apartment without a warrant. The officers maintained that they could not be sued for misconduct in the case because they were simply doing their jobs. Weinstein refused to dismiss the suit, saying that the arguments would have to be weighed by a jury at a trial.
Weinstein, who has sat in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn since 1967, has long been known for his progressive leanings and iconoclastic temperament. In recent years, he has produced a spate of rulings that has caught the attention of both the local bar and his colleagues on the bench.
Last summer, for example, he publicly called for more female lawyers to have speaking roles in court. A few months later, he said he wanted to personally investigate the problem of perjury by the police. In December, after handing down stiff prison terms to three young men for a gunpoint robbery, he published a remarkable order mourning the “lack of sentencing alternatives” for violent young criminals who, he said, are often written off as “society’s unredeemables.”
Even so, his pointed broadside at the nation’s highest court raised eyebrows.
“It’s quite unusual,” said Bennett Capers, a professor at Brooklyn Law School whose writing was quoted in the order. “A few judges do it occasionally, but the question has to be asked: How else do you change the law?”
Acknowledging that a district judge has no power to affect a high court ruling, Capers said Weinstein seemed to be addressing his decision not so much to the justices themselves as to the public.
“It’s written in a way that he seems to have a larger audience in mind,” Capers said. “He seems to be saying, ‘Look at what’s going on.'”
The case in question concerns the events of Jan. 15, 2014, when Camille Watson, a woman with a history of mental illness, called 911 claiming that her 2-week-old niece had been abused by Watson’s brother-in-law, Larry Thompson. Watson was staying with Thompson and his wife at their apartment in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. When the police arrived with emergency medical workers, they said they needed to come in to see the baby, but Thompson refused to let them enter without a warrant.
According to court papers, one of the officers, Paul Montefusco, then forced his way inside, and when Thompson tried to block his path, he arrested him. Thompson also claims that Montefusco threw him to the ground and started choking him while the other officers kicked and punched him.
The emergency workers were eventually able to inspect the child and found some red marks on her buttocks, which turned out to be diaper rash. Thompson was nonetheless held in custody for two days on charges of resisting arrest and obstructing governmental administration. After three court hearings, the case against him was dismissed.
Within a year, Thompson sued the police with a raft of accusations including false arrest, unlawful entry, excessive force and malicious prosecution. As the case proceeded, the defendants claimed qualified immunity. That defense was first permitted by the Supreme Court in a ruling in 1967 designed to shield the police from financial liability: The court decided that if officers were not immune, they might be disinclined to do their duty.
But in two different cases — one from 2015, the other from this year — the court expanded the scope of the immunity defense in a “particularly troubling” way, Weinstein wrote in his order this week. In the order, he quoted a dissent in the more recent case, Kisela v. Hughes, by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who said qualified immunity was gradually becoming “an absolute shield for law enforcement officers.”
Thompson’s suit is set to be heard at trial scheduled to open in September.