The scope of police authority in interactions with citizens has been a commonly discussed topic in media coverage in recent months. Although at the forefront of the modern discussion, the use of force is not a novel concept in the law. Indeed, law enforcement use of force is among the more commonly litigated issues in both state and federal court, and as many lawyers know, officers have some immunity from suit. This immunity, official immunity, is an affirmative defense, and the scope of the immunity is almost invariably at issue in cases brought against law enforcement. As demonstrated in the Georgia Court of Appeals’ recent decision in Vidal v. Leavell, the scope of official immunity is quite broad under Georgia law, a reality for which potential litigants should be prepared.
The facts at issue in Vidal occurred on April 23, 2011. On that day, the plaintiff in this case was at an IHOP in Buckhead with a friend. Shortly after being seated, the plaintiff noticed that the defendant in this case, an off-duty police officer hired by IHOP to provide security, approached a booth occupied by a group of young women. The plaintiff said she could not hear what words were being exchanged between the officer and the women but that she did see the officer force himself into the booth and push two of the women into the wall. The officer was attempting to arrest the patrons in the booth, and the plaintiff began to videotape the incident because she believed the officer was acting too aggressively. Another officer arrived and apparently engaged the defendant to halt his interaction with the patrons. The plaintiff testified that she touched the officer so that he would realize she was recording him. The officer then slapped the plaintiff, and the video shows that the plaintiff then took retaliatory swings at the officer. While the second officer held her arms back, the officer punched the plaintiff in the head and then threw her to the floor, dragged her to the door, and handcuffed her. The plaintiff was arrested for obstruction and assault. Other patrons at the IHOP videotaped the incident.