The Supreme Court sided Monday with police in two cases in which plaintiffs claimed officers used excessive force, overturning separate lower court rulings that had allowed the officers to be sued for civil rights violations.
In two unsigned opinions, the court stressed police are entitled to be shielded from liability unless it is “clear to a reasonable officer” that their actions are unlawful. In both cases the court ruled that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that protects police from liability for civil rights violations in many circumstances.
In one case, the Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling that found an officer in California who placed his knee on a prone suspect could be sued. In another, it overturned a lower court ruling that two police officers in Oklahoma could be sued because their actions before a fatal shooting escalated the potential for violence.
At a time when the nation is still grappling with fatal police interactions and bipartisan talks in Congress over increasing accountability have fizzled, the Supreme Court has mostly balked at lawsuits questioning the legal immunity extended to officers.
Critics say qualified immunity lets police off the hook in virtually every case in which their actions are not specifically prohibited. Police organizations have long countered that officers need immunity in cases when they must defend themselves and split-second decisions can lead to unforeseen tragedy.
There were no dissents from any justice in either case.
In one of the lawsuits, two officers in Oklahoma were part of a group of police that responded to a 911 call from the ex-wife of Dominic Rollice. The 49-year-old was in the garage, his former wife told police, and was intoxicated. Police walked into the garage through a side entrance and confronted Rollice, who moved toward the back of the room.
Body camera footage shows that at some point after Rollice reached the back of the garage he grabbed a hammer in one hand and held it above his head and put his other hand “in front of him as if to signal the officers to stop or to create distance,” according to court records. Police drew their weapons, but soon after one of the officers is heard saying he would “go less lethal” and switched from a handgun to a stun gun.
Rollice’s attorneys have called attention to that decision as a sign the other officers also could have holstered their weapons.
Police repeatedly demanded that Rollice drop the hammer, but he declined.
Rollice continued to talk with the officers “relatively calmly,” according to a lower federal court’s account, but also appeared to pull the hammer behind his head at one point. In response, two of the officers fired their weapons multiple times. Rollice died of his wounds. The state medical examiner later found methamphetamine in his body.
Rollice’s estate sued the officers, asserting their conduct violated his civil rights. A district court ruled the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.
But the Denver-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit reversed that decision, ruling that courts may consider police conduct in the moments leading up to a fatal encounter if that conduct created the need to use force in the first place. Because appeals courts across the country have dealt with that question differently, Rollice’s attorneys appealed to the Supreme Court, seeking a nationwide standard.
“The officers’ conduct — aggressively moving in on an impaired person and backing him into a garage full of tools, immediately inflaming the situation and causing him to pick up a hammer — was indeed reckless behavior,” attorneys for Rollice told the court.
Lawyers for the officers countered that they tried to deescalate the situation and repeatedly ordered Rollice to drop the hammer. The appeals court decision, they told the Supreme Court, leaves police in an “untenable position” in which they “face liability and being branded unconstitutional actors even if they act reasonably in self-defense.”
“Officers deserve better than to be put in that no-win position,” the lawyers said.
In the other suit, police were sent to a home in Union City, California, near San Francisco five years ago after a 911 call in which a 12-year-old girl reported that her mother’s boyfriend had a chainsaw and was going to attack her and her family. When police arrived, they spotted a knife in Ramon Cortesluna’s pocket and shot him with beanbag rounds when he lowered his hands in apparent confusion at the orders police were shouting at him.
A divided U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reversed a lower court’s judgment for the officer, ruling that controlling precedent at the time put police on notice that kneeling on the back of a prone, nonresisting suspect was considered excessive force. Attorneys for the police told the Supreme Court in a brief that the kneeling move used on Cortesluna is “standard field procedure.”
The officer appealed to the Supreme Court in May, asserting that briefly placing a knee on a prone suspect was not excessive and that the tactic is “employed hundreds, perhaps even thousands of times each day, by law enforcement officers throughout the country.”
The lawsuit is one of several challenging the police tactic of pinning prone suspects. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court sent back to the lower courts a suit against St. Louis police brought after officers handcuffed a man and put their weight on his back inside a jail cell.
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