Yesterday (April 2), the Supreme Court issued a ruling that could have major implications for excessive use of force suits against law enforcement.
In 2010, three University of Arizona police officers responded to a third-party off-campus 911 call about a woman—later identified as Sharon Chadwick—striking a tree in her yard with a knife. When they arrived, Chadwick was in the driveway, and her roommate Amy Hughes exited the house holding a kitchen knife. She stopped six feet from Chadwick and stood calmly, by all accounts. Officers said Hughes didn’t respond to orders to drop the knife, though it is unclear if she heard them. Then Kisela shot her four times. The other officers did not use force.
In Kisela v. Hughes, Amy Hughes sued Officer Andrew Kisela under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for allegedly using excessive force and therefore violating her civil rights as provided for in the Fourth Amendment. A lower court ruled in Kisela’s favor, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the ruling, which was then appealed to the Supreme Court. The court overturned that ruling via an unsigned opinion yesterday.
Per The New York Times:
The Supreme Court reversed that ruling, saying that Officer Kisela was entitled to qualified immunity, a doctrine that shields officials from suits over violations of constitutional rights that were not clearly established at the time of the conduct in question.
The majority did not decide whether Officer Kisela’s actions violated the Constitution, but it did say there was no clear precedent that would have alerted him that opening fire in what he said was an effort to protect Ms. Chadwick amounted to unconstitutionally excessive force.
Justice Sotomayor wrote a dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. From that opinion:
Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Hughes, as the Court must at summary judgment, a jury could find that Kisela violated Hughes’ clearly established Fourth Amendment rights by needlessly resorting to lethal force. In holding otherwise, the Court misapprehends the facts and misapplies the law, effectively treating qualified immunity as an absolute shield. I therefore respectfully dissent.
Sotomayor also called out the high court, saying that it setting a dangerous precedent:
As I have previously noted, this Court routinely displays an unflinching willingness “to summarily reverse courts for wrongly denying officers the protection of qualified immunity” but “rarely intervene[s] where courts wrongly afford officers the benefit of qualified immunity in these same cases.” … Such a one-sided approach to qualified immunity transforms the doctrine into an absolute shield for law enforcement officers, gutting the deterrent effect of the Fourth Amendment.
The majority today exacerbates that troubling asymmetry. Its decision is not just wrong on the law; it also sends an alarming signal to law enforcement officers and the public. It tells officers that they can shoot first and think later, and it tells the public that palpably unreasonable conduct will go unpunished. Because there is nothing right or just under the law about this, I respectfully dissent.
This decision takes on large dimensions as the tally of Black people killed by police continues to tick upward, including last month’s police-involved shooting of Stephon Clark. Civil rights attorney S. Lee Merritt tweeted about the decision:
The @USSupremeCourt is creating precedent that makes it even easier for cops to get away with murder.
The Qualified Immunity hurdle is becoming an Absolute Immunity steel curtain.
The deadliest police force in the modern world is now less accountable!https://t.co/zyHyXNASCw
— S. Lee Merritt, Esq. (@MeritLaw) April 3, 2018
Per The Washington Post’s database of deadly police force incidents, American police have killed 58 Black people this year. They have killed a total of 277 people in 2018.