After Taking A Couple Of Steps Towards Trimming Back Qualified Immunity, The Supreme Court Regresses To The Mean
from the continuing-to-redefine-'judgment-proof' dept
The Supreme Court spent decades making it all but impossible for citizens to successfully sue law enforcement officers for violating their rights. The Supreme Court created the doctrine of “qualified immunity” nearly 40 years ago and has spent most of the intervening years honing it into a nearly impenetrable shield for officers who violate rights.
But over the past year, the Supreme Court seemed to recognize it had perhaps placed too many limits on lower courts, leading them away from examining the case at hand and towards affirming QI defenses because no precedential case had identical facts: i.e., excessive force deployed at 6 pm on a Tuesday is completely different than excessive force deployed at 7 am on a Wednesday, etc. And if no previous facts aligned with the current facts, courts had no reason to examine the facts in front of them, steering them away from creating new precedent that would put officers on notice that violating rights on a Wednesday morning also wouldn’t be tolerated.
The past twelve months have been somewhat anomalous for the Supreme Court. It has reversed three appeals court decisions awarding qualified immunity. The three reversals were important. The Fifth Circuit was home to two of the reversals — a circuit notorious for its aggressive protection of law enforcement officers. But the lack of an official opinion suggests the Supreme Court is in no hurry to limit qualified immunity’s coverage.
The latest shadow docket release [PDF] from the Supreme Court contains two more unofficial orders on qualified immunity decisions. But these go the other way, reversing appellate decisions that stripped officers of their qualified immunity shield. (via Reason)
In one case (via the Ninth Circuit), police officers reporting to a call from two teens about their mother’s drunk ex-boyfriend menacing them in their home arrested Ramon Cortesluna. According to the arrestee, his rights were violated when Officer Daniel Rivas-Villegas knelt on his back with his knee while he was already face down on the ground. The Ninth Circuit said this was excessive force, citing another case where an unarmed arrestee was seriously injured when he was restrained face down by an officer’s knee.
The Supreme Court, however, says the Ninth Circuit’s cited precedent isn’t on point enough. The cited case dealt with an unarmed person and a noise complaint. This case deals with a man who had a knife on him and was allegedly trying to saw his way into a room where the two frightened teens who made the 911 call had barricaded themselves. The similarity is the knee to the back as a restraint method and the Supreme Court says that’s simply not enough.
The second rejection is headed back to the Tenth Circuit. In this case, a woman called the cops on her ex-husband, who was drunk and wandering around outside of her house. Officers arrived and followed the man into the garage, where the man grabbed a hammer and held it over his head, ignoring orders to drop the tool. When he refused, the officers on the scene shot and killed the man. The entire confrontation was captured on the officers’ body cameras.
The Tenth Circuit said no immunity because the officers’ decision to follow the man into the garage created the danger they responded to by killing him. The Supreme Court says the Tenth Circuit is wrong. Not only that, it says it shouldn’t even need to be having this discussion in the first place.
We need not, and do not, decide whether the officers violated the Fourth Amendment in the first place, or whether recklessly creating a situation that requires deadly force can itself violate the Fourth Amendment. On this record, the officers plainly did not violate any clearly established law.
These may have been close cases — far from the seemingly clear violations of rights detailed in earlier reversals by the Supreme Court. But what’s said about these cases is alarming. Rather than build on previous reversals in which the Supreme Court said lower courts were far too specific in their determinations of what had be “previously established,” the Supreme Court rolls everything back, restating its mandate that cases on point are all that matters, not the egregiousness of the violation being discussed nor any determinations about what officers should “reasonably” be expected to know about the Constitution.
Worse, it makes it clear the Supreme Court is still solidly behind its own doctrine and wishes to shield as many officers as possible from additional fact-finding or actually being subjected to the apparent indignity of a jury. It seems the Supreme Court believes all lawsuits against law enforcement officers are frivolous until proven otherwise and that, at the very worst, government employees should only have to suffer through a couple of rounds of motions before walking away from allegations of rights violations.