Among the issues frequently included in an ongoing debate over police reform is the concept of qualified immunity, which generally protects law enforcement personnel from civil liability upon facing accusations of violating statutes or an individual’s rights, particularly when the alleged violations are unclear.
This week, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down two rulings this week that could strengthen the case for such protections under the law.
SCOTUS overturns lower court orders
In both cases, officers had been accused of using excessive force. The nation’s highest court determined that both individuals were entitled to qualified immunity in decisions that reversed lower court rulings.
According to the Daily Wire, the unsigned rulings were attached to the end of a lengthy list of summary orders from the bench regarding dozens of other cases that were either pending or under consideration.
In the first case, Union City, California, police officer Daniel Rivas-Villegas was accused of using excessive force for placing his knee on the back of Ramon Cortesluna while the suspect was disarmed and handcuffed.
Officers responded to a 911 call regarding a domestic violence situation in which Cortesluna allegedly terrorized his wife and children with a chainsaw. Upon arriving, officers reportedly confronted the suspect, who had a knife in his pocket that he appeared to reach for when ordered to keep his hands up.
After one officer deployed a non-lethal weapon to gain Cortesluna’s compliance, Rivas-Villegas reportedly placed his knee on the suspect’s back for a few seconds while removing the weapon and applying handcuffs.
“Reverse the Ninth Circuit’s determination”
Although a district court sided with the officers, a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel reversed that decision and ruled that Rivas-Villegas was not entitled to qualified immunity due to a precedent set in a prior case. In its ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that the precedent cited by the appeals court was not applicable due to the different circumstances in this case.
“For that reason, we grant Rivas-Villegas’ petition for certiorari and reverse the Ninth Circuit’s determination that Rivas-Villegas is not entitled to qualified immunity,” the decision affirmed.
In the second case, officers responded to a domestic dispute report and fatally shot a suspect during a confrontation in his ex-wife’s garage after he allegedly raised a hammer above his head as if to attack the officers. Similarly, a district court sided with the officers before an appeals court determined that they were not entitled to qualified immunity.
“Neither the panel majority nor the respondent have identified a single precedent finding a Fourth Amendment violation under similar circumstances,” the Supreme Court ultimately ruled. “The officers were thus entitled to qualified immunity. The petition for certiorari and the motions for leave to file briefs amici curiae are granted, and the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed.”
The debate over police reform is sure to continue for the foreseeable future, but the Supreme Court’s recent rulings might signal that qualified immunity will not be on the chopping block anytime soon.