Ruling Denying Immunity to Police Officer On Excessive Force Claim Overturned By Supreme Court
In October 2020, in Cortesluna v. Leon, 979 F.3d 645 (9th Cir. 2020), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided a police brutality case involving an officer who kneeled on the back of a criminal suspect hard enough to cause an injury. The Court of Appeals held that the force used by the officer was excessive. It also determined that existing case law put the officer on notice that this type of force, under the circumstances, was excessive. As a result, the officer was denied qualified immunity and could be held responsible for the injuries caused.
The police officer appealed the decision to the United States Supreme Court. The officer asked the Court to review the denial of qualified immunity. The Supreme Court overturned the Court of Appeals and determined that the officer was entitled to qualified immunity. As a result, the citizen could not pursue his claim against the officer for excessive force under what is commonly referred to as a section 1983 lawsuit.
Below, we will briefly discuss some of the important legal principles and the facts of the case. Then, we will examine the Supreme Court’s ruling and potential implications on police brutality cases. For a more detailed discussion of the facts and the ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, you can review our previous post here.
Principles of Excessive Force and Qualified Immunity
Under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, every person has a right to be free from unreasonable seizures. When a police officer applies force to someone in making an arrest, it constitutes a seizure. When the officer uses excessive force, the seizure is unreasonable and violates the person’s Fourth Amendment rights. Police brutality can take many forms, including the use of the following:
- K-9 police dogs
- Pepper spray
- Beanbag rounds fired from a shotgun
- Fist, knee and elbow strikes
- Control holds
- Any other use of force considered objectively unreasonable under the circumstances
It is important to keep in mind that just because a police officer is guilty of using excessive force, the officer is not necessarily responsible to pay for the damages caused. The officer may be protected by a legal doctrine called qualified immunity.
Qualified immunity involves a two-prong analysis. The court decides (1) whether the officer violated a constitutional right and 2) whether that right was clearly established at the time of the officer’s alleged misconduct. In the police brutality context, the first prong analysis is simply a question of whether the officer used excessive force. Under the second prong, a right is clearly established if there was already another case involving similar facts and circumstances where a police officer was found guilty of using excessive force. Sometimes, though not often, a court will determine that the force used by an officer is so obviously excessive that the officer must know his or her conduct is unlawful. Under those circumstances, it is not necessary to identify a prior similar case.
In short, if qualified immunity is granted to an officer, any lawsuit and claim for excessive force is over with a termination in favor of the officer.
This second prong ensures that an officer is on notice that using a particular type or degree of force under the circumstances is unconstitutional. If the right at issue is not clearly established because there is no similar prior case and it is not the rare obvious case, then the officer is shielded by qualified immunity and is not responsible for the harm caused, even if the force used is found to be excessive. If this happens, the citizen on who the force was used may no longer pursue the claim against the officer and recover money damages. In short, if qualified immunity is granted to an officer, any lawsuit and claim for excessive force is over with a termination in favor of the officer.
The Facts of the Police Brutality Case
The scope of this post is limited to the claim of excessive force against Union City police officer Rivas-Villegas. The City of Union and two other Union City police officers were initially sued as well. However, they won their case and no appeal was filed as to them. Only the initial decision in favor of Officer Rivas-Villegas was appealed. If you would like to read the first decision regarding all of the officers and the City of Union, you can find it here: Cortesluna v. Leon, 2018 WL 6727824 (N.D. Cal. Dec. 21, 2018).
On November 6, 2016, a 911 dispatcher received a call from a crying 12-year-old girl who reported that she, her 15-year-old sister, and their mother were barricaded in a bedroom. The daughter reported that they were hiding from the mother’s boyfriend who had “anger issues,” was “always drinking,” and was “really mad.” The girl also reported that the boyfriend had a chainsaw, and they feared he was going to hurt them. Union City police officers, including Officer Rivas-Villegas, were dispatched to the scene.
After the officers arrived, the boyfriend eventually came outside. When he did so, he was holding some sort of metal tool. Officer Rivas-Villegas ordered the boyfriend to drop it, and the boyfriend dropped the weapon. Another officer noticed that the boyfriend had a knife in his left pants pocket. The officer announced this and told the boyfriend to put his hands up. Instead, the boyfriend lowered his head and his hands. In response, another officer shot the boyfriend with two beanbag rounds from a shotgun. The boyfriend then raised his hands and got down onto the ground.
While the boyfriend was on the ground, Officer Rivas-Villegas straddled the boyfriend with his right foot on the ground next to the boyfriend’s right side. The officer placed his left knee onto the left side of the boyfriend’s back near where the boyfriend had a knife in his pocket. The officer was in that position for no more than eight seconds before standing up and removing his knee from the boyfriend’s back. Another officer removed the knife from the boyfriend’s pocket and handcuffed him before standing him up.
The boyfriend filed a civil rights lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Officer Rivas-Villegas for excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The federal court granted summary judgment in favor of the officer, ending the case against him. The court held that the officer did not use excessive force. It also concluded that even if he had, he would be shielded by qualified immunity. As discussed in our previous post, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the district court. It concluded both that the force used was excessive and that the officer was not entitled to qualified immunity. The officer appealed the Court of Appeals’ decision, which was the discussion of our earlier blog post.
Analysis of the Supreme Court Opinion That Granted Qualified Immunity on the Excessive Force Claim
The opinion of the United States Supreme Court was much shorter than the one issued by the Ninth Circuit. The Supreme Court did not discuss whether the officer’s use of force was excessive. Instead, the court focused on whether the officer violated a clearly established right. This is the second prong of the qualified immunity analysis discussed above. Notably, a court may consider the two-prong test in either order.
The Supreme Court focused its discussion on the position by the Court of Appeals that the present case was similar to a prior case called LaLonde v. County of Riverside, 204 F.3d 947 (9th Cir. 2000). The Court of Appeals had reasoned that each case involved a criminal suspect who was lying face-down and who was not resisting when an officer kneeled on the suspect’s back allegedly causing significant injury. As a result, the Court of Appeals determined that Officer Rivas-Villegas was on notice that his conduct was unlawful. The Supreme Court disagreed.
The Supreme Court began its analysis of qualified immunity by explaining that a right is clearly established if “it is sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.” Further, a prior case does not need to be directly on point for a right to be clearly established. However, the court made clear that controlling precedent must have placed the constitutional issue beyond debate. In other words, a prior case involving excessive force must be similar enough so that any reasonable officer would know that his or her conduct also amounts to excessive force. Additionally, “specificity is especially important in the Fourth Amendment context” because of the difficulties officers may face trying to apply the qualified immunity doctrine in every set of circumstances they confront.
The Supreme Court also acknowledged that there are cases in which the use of force is so obviously excessive that no prior similar case is needed to put the officer on notice that his or her conduct is unlawful. However, the court made clear that the case involving Officer Rivas-Villegas was not an obvious case. Because it was not an obvious case, the burden was on the boyfriend to identify a similar prior case in which a police officer was guilty of using excessive force. If there were a similar case, Officer Rivas-Villegas would have been on notice that his kneeling on the boyfriend was unlawful. As a result, it would be considered that the right of the boyfriend allegedly violated was clearly established at the time of the officer’s actions.
Unlike the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court concluded that the boyfriend had not identified a case similar enough to put the officer on notice of his unlawful conduct. The Supreme Court pointed out that the only Ninth Circuit precedent relied upon by the Court of Appeals was LaLonde v. County of Riverside. The Supreme Court explained that in LaLonde, the police were responding to a noise complaint against the plaintiff, LaLonde. When the officers knocked on LaLonde’s door, he greeted them in underwear and a t-shirt with a sandwich in his hand. LaLonde refused to voluntarily let the officers into his home, but they entered anyway. One of the officers knocked the sandwich from LaLonde’s hand, grabbed him by the ponytail and knocked him to the ground. LaLonde was sprayed in the face with pepper spray after a brief scuffle. LaLonde stopped resisting and was handcuffed by an officer who “deliberately dug his knee into LaLonde’s back with a force that caused him long-term if not permanent back injury.”
The Supreme Court found that the facts in LaLonde differed in several meaningful ways from the present case. In Lalonde, the police were responding to a noise complaint. Rivas-Villegas was responding to a serious domestic incident involving a chainsaw. LaLonde was unarmed, but the boyfriend in the present case had a knife that he had reached toward prior to the use of force. Finally, undisputed video evidence showed that Officer Rivas-Villegas had his knee on the boyfriend for no more than eight seconds and only on the side of his back near the pocket containing the knife. In contrast, the officer deliberately dug his knee into LaLonde’s back even though LaLonde did not have a weapon and had made no threats to the police when they approached.
The Supreme Court concluded that neither LaLonde nor any other controlling case was similar enough to put Officer Rivas-Villegas on notice that his conduct was unlawful. As a result, the officer was entitled to qualified immunity and could not be held responsible for injuries caused to the boyfriend by kneeling on his back.
Impact of The Decision on Future Police Brutality Claims and Excessive Force Cases
The decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cortesluna v. Leon against Officer Rivas-Villegas seemed to greatly expand the circumstances under which an officer may be held liable for kneeling on a suspect’s back and causing injury. However, following the Supreme Court’s decision, it is not that clear-cut. From the cases discussed, you can see that the answer to the question of whether an officer may kneel on a criminal suspect is: it depends.
Whether kneeling on a suspect is permissible will ultimately depend on the facts of each case.
As always, what are known as the Graham factors must be considered. As we mentioned in our February post, these factors include the severity of the crime, whether the suspect was actively resisting or attempting to evade arrest, and whether the suspect posed an immediate threat to others, including the officers. The type and degree of force used is also a consideration. This means that the length of time the officer is kneeling on the suspect, the amount of weight placed on the suspect, and the seriousness of the injuries may all be taken into account. Whether kneeling on a suspect is permissible will ultimately depend on the facts of each case.
Call Experienced Police Brutality Attorneys to Discuss Your Excessive Force Case Today
Civil rights and police brutality cases are difficult and complex. Each case is different and involves both a fact-intensive assessment as well as a thorough analysis of complicated case law and constitutional issues. They involve intricate constitutional issues and complicated case law. There is a reason why you can find a car accident attorney on every corner and on every billboard. The same is not true with civil rights attorneys who handle difficult police brutality cases.
The police brutality lawyers at the Piccuta Law Group have extensive experience and a proven record of success handling civil rights cases involving law enforcement misconduct and police brutality. 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 win your case and obtain a recovery. Contact us today at (831) 920-3111.
About the author: The content on this page was written by California police brutality attorney and Monterey civil rights lawyer Charles “Tony” Piccuta. Piccuta graduated with honors from Indiana University-Maurer School of Law in Bloomington, Indiana (Previously ranked 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, and many local county and City bar associations.
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