Are North Carolina Courts Chipping Away at Public Official Immunity?

For years, police officers and other public officials in North Carolina have enjoyed the protections of public official immunity when charged or sued in their individual capacity for negligence or tort.  Public official immunity provides that public officials are immune from such suits unless it can be shown that they acted with malice or corruption.  In recent years, there has been talk of whether these public officials deserve the protections extended to them under the law.  The fear amongst governmental entities is that the courts or legislature will begin to strip those protections away.  The recent North Carolina Supreme Court decision in Bartley v. City of High Point could be the first step in chipping away at those protections. 

In Bartley, the Plaintiff crossed a double yellow line while driving.  A police officer saw him and testified he turned on his lights.  Plaintiff claims he did not see the lights and drove home.  The officer followed Plaintiff home and ordered Plaintiff back into his car once he got out.  Plaintiff testified the officer was not in uniform and did not immediately identify himself, so he just thought the officer was a trespasser and did not obey his commands.  Plaintiff testified the officer threw him to the ground and tightly handcuffed him once he started to walk away.  The officer testified Plaintiff’s refusal to comply with his orders provided him with probable cause to arrest Plaintiff.  He denied body slamming Plaintiff or tightly handcuffing him.  Plaintiff filed suit against the officer and the City of High Point for malicious prosecution, false imprisonment/arrest, and assault and battery.  The Defendants asserted defenses of governmental and public official immunity.

The officer filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that public official immunity applied.  His motion was denied and the officer appealed to the Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court noted an individual will not enjoy public official immunity if his actions were done will malice, or if they were corrupt.  Here, the Supreme Court found that the officer was not entitled to public official immunity because the Plaintiff produced evidence that the officer acted with malice during the arrest, thus raising a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the officer acted with malice. 

To show a malicious act, Plaintiff must show the act was done wantonly, contrary to the actor’s duty, and intended to injure another.  An act is wanton when done needlessly, amounting to a reckless indifference to the rights of others.  An officer can use reasonable force necessary to effect an arrest, and here, Plaintiff alleged he was body slammed into the trunk and then tightly handcuffed.  Testimony revealed Plaintiff was unarmed, did not resist arrest, did not threaten the officer, and did not try to evade the arrest.  The Court found the use of a body slam to subdue an unarmed, nonresistant individual was evidence of malice.  The tight handcuffing of Plaintiff and the officer’s refusal to loosen the handcuffs were found to be further evidence of malice. 

Due to the tight handcuffing and physicality used during the arrest, the Court found Plaintiff presented sufficient evidence of malice to create a genuine issue of material fact.  Prior to this case, North Carolina Courts have not found tight handcuffing to be evidence of malice or excessive force.  Such a determination will likely have ripple effects throughout the state and could embolden Plaintiffs to further push what is considered excessive force.  What is unclear is how other courts will interpret this holding.  A Plaintiff may argue that Bartley provides a basis to find evidence of malice wherever tight handcuffing is involved.  Hopefully, courts will view Bartley as a fact-specific case where all of the evidence coupled together simply created a question for a jury as to whether the officer was acting with malice.    

This holding seems to suggest that courts are viewing the public official immunity defense with a more critical eye.  If the Bartley decision is any indication of how courts are trending, public official immunity issues could be decided more often by juries instead of judges, in an attempt to create more accountability among public officials.  If that is the case, it will be important to keep public officials updated on when immunity may or may not apply and to keep in mind that these issues may ultimately end up in front of a jury.