Supreme Court Upholds Police Qualified Immunity in Two Cases

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of police officers accused of using excessive force in two cases involving the controversial doctrine of qualified immunity.

The high court found that in both cases, appeals courts wrongly denied the officers immunity by relying upon previous cases that were not sufficiently similar in facts to the cases they were asked to judge. The Supreme Court, in unsigned opinions, found that the precedents cited were not reliable indicators to officers that their conduct would be considered excessive force and thus their conduct is protected under qualified immunity.

The qualified immunity doctrine protects police officers and other public officials from personal liability unless it can be shown they violated a “clearly established” right. Over decades, this has come to mean that officials are held liable only if they should have known they were engaging in illegal behavior because a court in their jurisdiction has previously ruled in a case with almost the same details and declared the conduct to be illegal.

Courts may also weigh whether the evidence might be enough to sway a jury that the officers used excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The doctrine has come in for criticism by some who say it makes it difficult to win civil suits against police and places them above the law. Police maintain that qualified immunity is necessary for them to be able to do their dangerous jobs without worrying about being sued.

In this week’s Supreme Court opinions, no justices dissented.

Both cases decided this week involved allegations of excessive force by police officers responding to domestic disturbances. In one case, Rivas-Villegas v. Cortesluna, California officers shot bean bag rounds and an officer subdued a male suspect who had a knife by placing his knee on the suspect’s back. In the other, a case out of Oklahoma, City of Tahlequah v. Bond, officers shot and killed a suspect who was approaching them with a hammer.

The high court explained in the Oklahoma case that the doctrine of qualified immunity shields officers from civil liability so long as their conduct “does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” The court continued that qualified immunity protects “‘all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.’”

In the Oklahoma case, police were called by a woman because her intoxicated ex-husband would not leave her home or garage.

At one point in their response, officers ordered the suspect to stop but he kept walking. He then grabbed a hammer and turned around to face the officers, grasping it with both hands, as if preparing to swing a baseball bat. The officers backed up, drew their guns and yelled for him to drop the hammer. He did not. Instead, he raised the hammer higher and took a stance as if he was about to throw the hammer or charge at the officers. In response, the officers fired their weapons, killing the suspect.

A panel of the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit concluded that a jury could find that one officer’s initial step toward the suspect and other officers’ subsequent “cornering” of him in the back of the garage “recklessly created the situation that led to the fatal shooting, such that their ultimate use of deadly force was unconstitutional.”

But the Supreme Court saw it differently and said that the officers “plainly did not violate any clearly established law.” The high court said not one of the cases cited by the appeals court to support its conclusion—Estate of Ceballos v. Husk, Hastings v. Barnes, Allen and Sevier v. Lawrence —”comes close to establishing that the officers’ conduct was unlawful.”

The high court admonished the appeals court for ignoring its guidance on qualified immunity:

“It is not enough that a rule be suggested by then-existing precedent; the “rule’s contours must be so well defined that it is ‘clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted.’ ”

In the California case, Union City police officers responded to a 911 call reporting that a woman and her two children were barricaded in a room for fear that the woman’s boyfriend was going to hurt them. After confirming that the family had no way of escaping the house, officers commanded the suspect outside and onto the ground. Officers saw a knife in his left pocket. While in the process of removing the knife and handcuffing the suspect, an officer briefly placed his knee on the left side of the suspect’s back. The suspect later sued alleging excessive force.

In reaching its conclusion in the California case that the police officer was not protected by immunity, the appeals court relied solely on a case, LaLonde v. County of Riverside, which the Supreme Court said was “materially distinguishable and thus does not govern the facts of this case.”

For one, in LaLonde, officers were responding to a mere noise complaint, whereas in the current situation they were responding to a serious alleged incident of domestic violence possibly involving a chainsaw. In addition, LaLonde was unarmed while in this more recent case the suspect had a knife. Further, video evidence shows, the officer placed his knee on the suspect’s back for no more than eight seconds.

The Supreme Court has declined appeals challenging the doctrine as recently as last June. Some members of Congress have called for reform of the immunity doctrine but the legislative efforts have stalled.

A Reuters special report last May found that courts have shown an increasing tendency to grant immunity in excessive force cases.

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