Although innocuous sounding, the clearly established test is a legal obstacle nearly impossible to overcome. It requires a victim to identify an earlier decision by the Supreme Court, or a federal appeals court in the same jurisdiction holding that precisely the same conduct under the same circumstances is illegal or unconstitutional. If none exists, the official is immune. Whether the official’s actions are unconstitutional, intentional or malicious is irrelevant to the test.
We are not being hyperbolic. Outrageous examples abound.
For instance, last November the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals held that Tennessee cops who allowed their police dog to bite a surrendered suspect did not violate clearly established law. There, the victim cited a case where the same court earlier held that it was unconstitutional for officers to sic their dog on a suspect who had surrendered by lying on the ground with his hands to the side. That was not sufficient, the court reasoned, because the victim had not surrendered by lying down: He had surrendered by sitting on the ground and raising his hands.
And in February, the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals held that a Texas prison guard who pepper sprayed an inmate in his locked cell “for no reason” did not violate clearly established law because similar cited cases involved guards who had hit and tased inmates for no reason, rather than pepper spraying them for no reason.