Civil Rights Lawyers from PLG Discuss New Police Brutality Case Where Supreme Court Granted Qualified Immunity
In our November 8, 2021 blog post, our California civil rights lawyers discussed the United States Supreme Court police brutality case of Rivas Villegas v. Cortesluna. That caser was decided on October 18, 2021. The Supreme Court concluded that a police officer who kneeled on a criminal suspect’s back could not be held responsible for the injuries caused because the officer was entitled to qualified immunity.
Qualified immunity was established by case law and allows a law enforcement officer to be immune from civil damages. If a law enforcement officer is granted qualified immunity it typically ends the case. Qualified immunity can be granted in two ways.
First, a law enforcement officer can be given qualified immunity if he or she convinces the court that his or her actions did not violate an individual’s constitutional rights. Second, qualified immunity can be granted even if the officer violated an individual’s constitutional rights if the officer can show he or she did not have notice. In other words, if the officer can show that there was no previous case that would make the officer aware that his or her conduct would violate someone’s constitutional rights.
In the Rivas-Villegas, a police officer responded to a 911 emergency call about a serious domestic incident involving children and a chainsaw. After the police officer arrived, and the suspect was on the ground, the officer knelt on the left side of the suspect’s back for no more than eight seconds. The officer knelt on the side of the suspect’s back near where the suspect had a knife in his pocket.
Notably, the suspect had not yet been handcuffed. The Supreme Court concluded that there was no previous case involving similar facts where an officer had been found guilty of excessive force. This meant that it was not clearly established that the police officer’s conduct was unlawful. As a result, the police officer was entitled to qualified immunity because he did not have notice that his conduct would violate constitutional rights.
The same day that the Supreme Court decided Rivas-Villegas v. Cortesluna, it issued an opinion in City of Tahlequah, Oklahoma v. Bond. In City of Tahlequah, the Supreme Court also addressed the issue of whether a police officer was entitled to qualified immunity in an excessive for case. Similar to Rivas-Villegas, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the lower court and decided the case in favor of the police officer, as will be discussed in greater detail below.
Principles of Qualified Immunity in a Police Brutality Case
If a police officer is protected by qualified immunity in a police brutality case, it means that he or she cannot be held responsible for any injuries caused. Qualified immunity involves a two-part test: (1) whether the police officer used excessive force; and 2) whether it was clearly established that the force used was excessive. Another way to put this second part is to ask the question of whether the right violated by the police officer was clearly established at the time the police officer acted. In the police brutality context, the right violated would be the person’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from the use of excessive force.
a right is clearly established if there were already another case involving similar facts where a police officer was found guilty of using excessive force.
In excessive force cases, a right is clearly established if there were already another case involving similar facts where a police officer was found guilty of using excessive force. The purpose of this requirement is so that police officers know when a certain type of force is illegal.
On a rare occasion, a court may decide that the force used was so obviously excessive that it is not necessary to identify a similar previous case. The obviousness of the police brutality is considered enough to put a reasonable officer on notice that his or her conduct was unlawful. Ultimately, if the court decides that the force used was not excessive or that it was not clearly established that the force was excessive, the officer is protected by qualified immunity.
The Facts Giving Rise to the Police Brutality Claim in City of Tahlequah v. Bond
On August 12, 2016, a woman dialed 911 to report that her ex-husband was in her garage, was intoxicated and was refusing to leave. The ex-husband no longer lived at the house, but he did keep his tools in his ex-wife’s garage. Three police officers were sent to the ex-wife’s house. All three officers were aware that the suspect was the caller’s ex-husband, that the ex-husband had been drinking and that the ex-husband had refused to leave his ex-wife’s home.
Shortly after the officers arrived on the scene, they confronted the ex-husband and began talking to him from the doorway of the garage. The ex-husband appeared to be nervous and was fidgeting with something in his hands. One of the officers asked the ex-husband if he would submit to a pat-down for weapons. The ex-husband refused.
One of the officers then took a step toward the doorway, causing the ex-husband to step back. The ex-husband, while still talking with the officers, turned around and walked toward his tools, which were hanging above a workbench at the back of the garage. The officers followed, but they did not get any closer than six feet from the ex-husband. As the ex-husband continued to walk toward his tools, the officers ordered him to stop.
The ex-husband ignored the officers and picked up a hammer from the back wall. He then turned around, lifted the hammer to shoulder height and took a position as if he were going to swing the hammer like a baseball bat. The officers drew their guns as they backed up and yelled at the ex-husband to drop the hammer.
The ex-husband did not drop the hammer. Instead, he moved to his right so that he was out from behind a piece of furniture. He then had a clear shot at one of the officers. The ex-husband raised the hammer behind his head as if to throw it or charge toward the officers. Two of the officers then shot and killed the ex-husband.
What Happened in the Civil Rights Case Before the Supreme Court Decision
The family of the ex-husband filed a civil rights lawsuit for police brutality under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the two officers that shot and killed the ex-husband. The ex-husband’s estate argued that the officers were guilty of using excessive force in violation of the ex-husband’s Fourth Amendment rights. The District Court, which is where the lawsuit was originally filed, decided that the officers did not use excessive force.
The court also decided that even if the force was excessive, the officers would be protected by qualified immunity because it was not clearly established that the force used was excessive. The opinion of the District Court can be found at Burke v. City of Tahlequah, Oklahoma, 2019 WL 4674316 (E.D. Okla., Sept. 25, 2019).
The granting of qualified immunity ended the case. The family then appealed the decision to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, in Bond v. City of Tahlequah, Oklahoma, 981 F.3d 808 (10th Cir. 2020), reversed the decision of the District Court. The court’s discussion of excessive force was a little different than in most cases.
The Tenth Circuit explained that a police officer can be held responsible for a shooting, even if the shooting itself was not excessive force. For the officer to be held accountable, he must have recklessly created the situation that required the officer to use deadly force. Applying that rule, the Court of Appeals concluded that when the officer took a step toward the ex-husband and cornered him in the garage, the officer recklessly created the need to shoot the ex-husband.
As a result, the shooting was unconstitutional. Under the second part of the qualified immunity test, the court concluded that there were several cases similar enough to put the officers on notice that their conduct was unlawful. The police officers asked the United States Supreme Court to review the decision, which it did in City of Tahlequah, Oklahoma v. Bond, 142 S.Ct. 9 (2021).
What the Supreme Court Decided In the Civil Rights Case
The Supreme Court did not answer the question of whether the officers used excessive force or whether recklessly creating the need for the use of deadly force was unlawful. Instead, the Court looked at the question of whether the officers violated a clearly established right. On this matter, the Court began its discussion by warning courts not to define a clearly established right too generally.
There must be a prior excessive force case similar enough so that any reasonable officer in the future would know that a similar use of force under those circumstances is unlawful. The Court explained that this is very important in excessive force cases so that police officers know what amount of force is allowed in the many scenarios they are likely to encounter. The Supreme Court ultimately overturned the Court of Appeals and granted qualified immunity to the officers.
The Previous Excessive Force Cases Analyzed by the Court
The Supreme Court looked at the cases that the Tenth Circuit determined were similar enough to put the officers on notice that it was unlawful to shoot the ex-husband. The Supreme Court first discussed the case of Allen v. Muskogee, Oklahoma, 119 F.3d 837 (10th Cir. 1997). This was the case most relied on by the Tenth Circuit.
In Allen, police officers responded to a potential suicide call. The officers sprinted toward a parked car, began screaming at the suspect and attempted to wrestle the gun from the suspect’s hands. Shots were exchanged, and the suspect was struck four times.
The Supreme Court explained that unlike in Allen, the police officers in City of Tahlequah engaged in a conversation with the ex-husband, followed him at a distance of 6–10 feet and did not yell at the ex-husband until after he picked up the hammer. The Supreme Court concluded that the cases were not similar enough to clearly establish that the officers’ conduct was reckless or that their ultimate shooting of the ex-husband was excessive force.
The Supreme Court concluded that the cases were not similar enough to clearly establish that the officers’ conduct was reckless or that their ultimate shooting of the ex-husband was excessive force.
The other cases relied on by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals were even less similar. In Sevier v. City of Lawrence, Kansas, 60 F.3d 695 (10th Cir. 1995), the Tenth Circuit did note that reckless conduct can make a later use of force excessive. However, the Tenth Circuit then determined that it lacked the authority to review the decision of the lower court on qualified immunity. The Supreme Court responded that if a court does not even have the authority to make a decision on qualified immunity, its decision has no effect at all in determining whether a right is clearly established.
Another case relied on by the Tenth Circuit was Estate of Ceballos v. Husk, 919 F.3d 1204 (10th Cir. 2019). However, this case was decided after the shooting in City of Tahlequah and so could not possibly put the officers in City of Tahlequah on notice that their conduct was unlawful. In short, the Supreme Court concluded that the case was of no use.
Finally, in Hastings v. Barnes, 252 F. App’x 197 (10th Cir. 2007), police officers initiated an encounter with an individual who was potentially suicidal. The officers chased the man into a bedroom, screamed at him and pepper-sprayed him. The Supreme Court quickly determined that this case was not similar enough. In a sarcastic tone, the Court stated: “Suffice it to say, a reasonable officer could miss the connection between that case and this one.”
None of the cases involved a finding of excessive force under similar circumstances. As a result, the officers in City of Tahlequah, Oklahoma v. Bond, were entitled to qualified immunity and could not be held responsible for damages…
In the end, the Supreme Court concluded that none of the cases relied on by the Tenth Circuit was even close to establishing that the police officers’ shooting of the ex-husband was unlawful. None of the cases involved a finding of excessive force under similar circumstances. As a result, the officers in City of Tahlequah, Oklahoma v. Bond, were entitled to qualified immunity and could not be held responsible for damages from the shooting of the ex-husband.
Call Experienced Police Brutality Attorneys to Discuss Your Excessive Force Case Today
Police brutality and other civil rights lawsuits are complex and difficult cases. Each one is different and depends on the facts of the case. Every case also involves an analysis of complicated constitutional law issues. It is no surprise that you can find a car accident lawyer wherever you turn. However, it is not so easy to find a competent civil rights attorney who can handle your police brutality case with the care and expertise it deserves. The police brutality lawyers at Piccuta Law Group have extensive experience and a proven record of success handling civil rights cases involving police excessive force.
If you were the victim of police brutality or excessive force, contact the Piccuta Law Group for a free consultation. Our police brutality lawyers can analyze your case and discuss your rights and potential for a recovery. There is no fee unless we are successful and obtain a recovery for you. Contact us today at (831) 920-3111.
About the author: The content on this page was written by California civil rights lawyer and Monterey personal injury attorney Charles “Tony” Piccuta. Piccuta graduated with honors from Indiana University-Maurer School of Law in Bloomington, Indiana (Previously Top 35 US News & World Report). Piccuta took and passed the State bars of Arizona, California, Illinois and Nevada (all on the first try). He actively practices throughout California and Arizona. He is a winning trial attorney that regularly handles serious personal injury cases and civil rights lawsuits. He has obtained six and seven figure verdicts in both state and federal court. He has been recognized by Super Lawyers for six years straight. He is AV Rated by Martindale Hubble. He is a member of the Consumer Attorneys of California, American Association for Justice, National Police Accountability Project, Arizona Association of Justice, Maricopa County Bar Association and Scottsdale Bar Association, among other organizations.
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