Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 10 (2002)

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Cite as: 536 U. S. 730 (2002)

Opinion of the Court

III

Despite their participation in this constitutionally impermissible conduct, respondents may nevertheless be shielded from liability for civil damages if their actions did not violate "clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U. S. 800, 818 (1982). In assessing whether the Eighth Amendment violation here met the Harlow test, the Court of Appeals required that the facts of previous cases be " 'materially similar' to Hope's situation." 240 F. 3d, at 981. This rigid gloss on the qualified immunity standard, though supported by Circuit precedent,9 is not consistent with our cases.

As we have explained, qualified immunity operates "to ensure that before they are subjected to suit, officers are on notice their conduct is unlawful." Saucier v. Katz, 533 U. S., at 206. For a constitutional right to be clearly established, its contours "must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right. This is not to say that an official action is protected by qualified immunity unless the very action in question has previously been held unlawful, see Mitchell [v. Forsyth, 472 U. S. 511,] 535, n. 12; but it is to say that in the light of pre-existing law the unlawfulness must be apparent." Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U. S. 635, 640 (1987).

Officers sued in a civil action for damages under 42 U. S. C. 1983 have the same right to fair notice as do defendants charged with the criminal offense defined in 18 U. S. C. 242. Section 242 makes it a crime for a state official to act "willfully" and under color of law to deprive a person of rights protected by the Constitution. In United States v. Lanier, 520 U. S. 259 (1997), we held that the defendant was entitled

9 See, e. g., Suissa v. Fulton County, 74 F. 3d 266-270 (CA11 1996); Lassiter v. Alabama A&M Univ. Bd. of Trustees, 28 F. 3d 1146, 1150 (CA11 1994); Hill v. Dekalb Regional Youth Detention Center, 40 F. 3d 1176, 1185 (CA11 1994).

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