Supreme Court sides with police in pair of 'qualified immunity' cases

The Supreme Court on Monday sided with law enforcement in a pair of cases that implicated “qualified immunity,” the controversial legal doctrine that gives police broad protection from lawsuits.

In a pair of unsigned summary rulings issued without noted dissent, the justices reversed two federal appeals courts that had permitted excessive force lawsuits to proceed against officers in separate cases arising from California and Oklahoma.

The justices ruled the officers should be granted qualified immunity, which shields government officials from liability unless it is proven they violated a “clearly established” right, a difficult legal hurdle.  

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Both lawsuits dealt with police responses to an emergency 911 call. 

The California case involved a man wielding a chainsaw who had threatened his girlfriend and her two minor children, forcing them to barricade themselves inside a room, according to the 911 call.

When Union City police confronted the suspect, they noticed a knife in his pocket. Officer Daniel Rivas-Villegas put his knee on the suspect’s back, near the pocket that contained the knife, for a period of eight seconds, as another officer placed the suspect under arrest.

The suspect sued Rivas-Villegas for excessive force. A federal district judge ruled for the officer, prompting an appeal by the suspect, Ramon Cortesluna. 

The San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reversed the district court's ruling, finding that the officer was not entitled to qualified immunity because "existing precedent put him on notice that his conduct constituted excessive force.”

The justices, in overturning the 9th Circuit, held that the precedent cited by the lower court was too different from the facts at hand for Rivas-Villegas to have received “fair notice” that his conduct amounted to excessive force.

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In the Oklahoma case, officers with the Tahlequah police responded to a 911 call from a woman who said her ex-husband was intoxicated and refused to leave her garage.

When officers arrived and approached the suspect inside the garage, he grabbed a hammer and lifted it overhead as if preparing to throw it or charge at the officers. When he refused to drop the hammer, two officers shot and killed him.

The deceased’s estate filed a lawsuit against the officers, alleging their use of deadly force violated the Fourth Amendment. The district court sided with law enforcement, but a Denver-based federal appeals court overturned the ruling, finding that the officers had recklessly created the deadly situation by “cornering” the suspect in the garage. 

In reversing the appeals court, the justices found the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because the court had not pointed to “a single precedent finding a Fourth Amendment violation under similar circumstances.”