The qualified immunity defense shields public officials from liability for civil rights violations committed during the exercise of their official duties. The defense, which the United States Supreme Court deems necessary for officials to perform their duties effectively, has, in practice, caused great confusion in law enforcement. Public officials often confront constitutionally uncertain circumstances while performing their everyday duties, but unfortunately, they often lack the legal guidance to know whether their actions are lawful. Consider a recent Tenth Circuit case, Lawrence v. Reed, in which the Rawlins, Wyoming Police Chief faced an unusual situation.
For years, Rawlins residents had complained to city officials that a certain landowner, Mrs. Lawrence, was storing junk vehicles on her property and creating an eyesore adjacent to the county fairgrounds. After a number of unsuccessful settlement proposals with Lawrence, the city council consulted the derelict vehicle ordinance to lawfully seize and junk the vehicles. Pursuant to the ordinance, the city may give notice of intent to impound after it determines that a vehicle is derelict, and may give the property owner thirty days notice of removal. Thereafter, if the owner does not remove the derelict vehicles within twenty-four hours of the second notice, the city may seize them. The Rawlins Police Chief, with the assistance of the city attorney, undertook each step of the mandated procedure without receiving an adequate response from Lawrence and eventually towed her vehicles to a local landfill. The chief received approval from the city attorney prior to each critical decision he made. . . .