Skip to comments.Supreme Court sides with police in pair of 'qualified immunity' cases
Posted on 10/18/2021 9:24:55 AM PDT by RandFan
The Supreme Court on Monday sided with law enforcement in a pair of cases that implicated “qualified immunity,” the controversial legal doctrine that gives police broad protection from lawsuits.
In a pair of unsigned summary rulings issued without noted dissent, the justices reversed two federal appeals courts that had permitted excessive force lawsuits to proceed against officers in separate cases arising from California and Oklahoma.
The justices ruled the officers should be granted qualified immunity, which shields government officials from liability unless it is proven they violated a “clearly established” right, a difficult legal hurdle.
Both lawsuits dealt with police responses to an emergency 911 call.
The California case involved a man wielding a chainsaw who had threatened his girlfriend and her two minor children, forcing them to barricade themselves inside a room, according to the 911 call.
When Union City police confronted the suspect, they noticed a knife in his pocket. Officer Daniel Rivas-Villegas put his knee on the suspect’s back, near the pocket that contained the knife, for a period of eight seconds, as another officer placed the suspect under arrest.
The suspect sued Rivas-Villegas for excessive force. A federal district judge ruled for the officer, prompting an appeal by the suspect, Ramon Cortesluna.
The San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reversed the district court's ruling, finding that the officer was not entitled to qualified immunity because "existing precedent put him on notice that his conduct constituted excessive force.”
The justices, in overturning the 9th Circuit, held that the precedent cited by the lower court was too different from the facts at hand for Rivas-Villegas to have received “fair notice” that his conduct amounted to excessive force.
In the Oklahoma case, officers with the Tahlequah police responded to a 911 call from a woman who said her ex-husband was intoxicated and refused to leave her garage.
When officers arrived and approached the suspect inside the garage, he grabbed a hammer and lifted it overhead as if preparing to throw it or charge at the officers. When he refused to drop the hammer, two officers shot and killed him.
The deceased’s estate filed a lawsuit against the officers, alleging their use of deadly force violated the Fourth Amendment. The district court sided with law enforcement, but a Denver-based federal appeals court reversed, finding that the officers had recklessly created the deadly situation by “cornering” the suspect in the garage.
In reversing the appeals court, the justices found the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because the court had not pointed to “a single precedent finding a Fourth Amendment violation under similar circumstances.”
So, let’s say police around the country get a pass on the vaccine mandates that the SCOTUS won’t overturn. What happens when their superiors direct them to arrest people guilty of ignoring vaccine mandates as directed by their company, school, or government agency, with the threat of job loss and/or financial ruin if they refused to do so? I think the word “hypocrite” comes to mind under such a scenario.
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
CITY OF TAHLEQUAH, OKLAHOMA, ET AL. v. AUSTIN
P. BOND, AS SPECIAL ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF
DOMINIC F. ROLLICE, DECEASED
ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED
STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE TENTH CIRCUIT
No. 20–1668. Decided October 18, 2021
On August 12, 2016, Dominic Rollice’s ex-wife, Joy, called
911. Rollice was in her garage, she explained, and he was
intoxicated and would not leave. Joy requested police assistance; otherwise, “it’s going to get ugly real quick.” 981
F. 3d 808, 812 (CA10 2020). The dispatcher asked whether
Rollice lived at the residence. Joy said he did not but explained that he kept tools in her garage.
Officers Josh Girdner, Chase Reed, and Brandon Vick responded to the call. All three knew that Rollice was Joy’s
ex-husband, was intoxicated, and would not leave her
Joy met the officers out front and led them to the side
entrance of the garage. There the officers encountered Rollice and began speaking with him in the doorway. Rollice
expressed concern that the officers intended to take him to
jail; Officer Girdner told him that they were simply trying
to get him a ride. Rollice began fidgeting with something
in his hands and the officers noticed that he appeared nervous. Officer Girdner asked if he could pat Rollice down for
weapons. Rollice refused.
Police body-camera video captured what happened next.
As the conversation continued, Officer Girdner gestured
with his hands and took one step toward the doorway, causing Rollice to take one step back. Rollice, still conversing
with the officers, turned around and walked toward the
back of the garage where his tools were hanging over a
2 CITY OF TAHLEQUAH v. BOND
workbench. Officer Girdner followed, the others close behind. No officer was within six feet of Rollice. The video is
silent, but the officers stated that they ordered Rollice to
stop. Rollice kept walking. He then grabbed a hammer
from the back wall over the workbench and turned around
to face the officers. Rollice grasped the handle of the hammer with both hands, as if preparing to swing a baseball
bat, and pulled it up to shoulder level. The officers backed
up, drawing their guns. At this point the video is no longer
silent, and the officers can be heard yelling at Rollice to
drop the hammer.
He did not. Instead, Rollice took a few steps to his right,
coming out from behind a piece of furniture so that he had
an unobstructed path to Officer Girdner. He then raised
the hammer higher back behind his head and took a stance
as if he was about to throw the hammer or charge at the
officers. In response, Officers Girdner and Vick fired their
weapons, killing Rollice.
Rollice’s estate filed suit against, among others, Officers
Girdner and Vick, alleging that the officers were liable under 42 U. S. C. §1983, for violating Rollice’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force. The officers
moved for summary judgment, both on the merits and on
qualified immunity grounds. The District Court granted
their motion. Burke v. Tahlequah, 2019 WL 4674316, *6
(ED Okla., Sept. 25, 2019). The officers’ use of force was
reasonable, it concluded, and even if not, qualified immunity prevented the case from going further. Ibid.
A panel of the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reversed. 981 F. 3d, at 826. The Court began by explaining
that Tenth Circuit precedent allows an officer to be held liable for a shooting that is itself objectively reasonable if the
officer’s reckless or deliberate conduct created a situation
requiring deadly force. Id., at 816. Applying that rule, the
Court concluded that a jury could find that Officer Girdner’s
Cite as: 595 U. S. ____ (2021) 3
initial step toward Rollice and the officers’ subsequent “cornering” of him in the back of the garage recklessly created
the situation that led to the fatal shooting, such that their
ultimate use of deadly force was unconstitutional. Id., at
823. As to qualified immunity, the Court concluded that
several cases, most notably Allen v. Muskogee, 119 F. 3d 837
(CA10 1997), clearly established that the officers’ conduct
was unlawful. 981 F. 3d, at 826. This petition followed.
We need not, and do not, decide whether the officers violated the Fourth Amendment in the first place, or whether
recklessly creating a situation that requires deadly force
can itself violate the Fourth Amendment. On this record,
the officers plainly did not violate any clearly established
The doctrine of qualified immunity shields officers from
civil liability so long as their conduct “does not violate
clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of
which a reasonable person would have known.” Pearson v.
Callahan, 555 U. S. 223, 231 (2009). As we have explained,
qualified immunity protects “‘all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.’” District of
Columbia v. Wesby, 583 U. S. ___, ___ –___ (2018) (slip op.,
at 13–14) (quoting Malley v. Briggs, 475 U. S. 335, 341
We have repeatedly told courts not to define clearly established law at too high a level of generality. See, e.g.,
Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U. S. 731, 742 (2011). It is not
enough that a rule be suggested by then-existing precedent;
the “rule’s contours must be so well defined that it is ‘clear
to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the
situation he confronted.’ ” Wesby, 583 U. S., at ___ (slip op.,
at 14) (quoting Saucier v. Katz, 533 U. S. 194, 202 (2001)).
Such specificity is “especially important in the Fourth
Amendment context,” where it is “sometimes difficult for an
officer to determine how the relevant legal doctrine, here
excessive force, will apply to the factual situation the officer
4 CITY OF TAHLEQUAH v. BOND
confronts.” Mullenix v. Luna, 577 U. S. 7, 12 (2015) (per
curiam) (internal quotation marks omitted).
The Tenth Circuit contravened those settled principles
here. Not one of the decisions relied upon by the Court of
Appeals—Estate of Ceballos v. Husk, 919 F. 3d 1204 (CA10
2019), Hastings v. Barnes, 252 Fed. Appx. 197 (CA10 2007),
Allen, 119 F. 3d 837, and Sevier v. Lawrence, 60 F. 3d 695
(CA10 1995)—comes close to establishing that the officers’
conduct was unlawful. The Court relied most heavily on
Allen. But the facts of Allen are dramatically different from
the facts here. The officers in Allen responded to a potential
suicide call by sprinting toward a parked car, screaming at
the suspect, and attempting to physically wrest a gun from
his hands. 119 F. 3d, at 841. Officers Girdner and Vick, by
contrast, engaged in a conversation with Rollice, followed
him into a garage at a distance of 6 to 10 feet, and did not
yell until after he picked up a hammer. We cannot conclude
that Allen “clearly established” that their conduct was reckless or that their ultimate use of force was unlawful.
The other decisions relied upon by the Court of Appeals
are even less relevant. As for Sevier, that decision merely
noted in dicta that deliberate or reckless preseizure conduct
can render a later use of force excessive before dismissing
the appeal for lack of jurisdiction. See 60 F. 3d, at 700–701.
To state the obvious, a decision where the court did not even
have jurisdiction cannot clearly establish substantive constitutional law. Regardless, that formulation of the rule is
much too general to bear on whether the officers’ particular
conduct here violated the Fourth Amendment. See al-Kidd,
563 U. S., at 742. Estate of Ceballos, decided after the
shooting at issue, is of no use in the clearly established inquiry. See Brosseau v. Haugen, 543 U. S. 194, 200, n. 4
(2004) (per curiam). And Hastings, an unpublished decision, involved officers initiating an encounter with a potentially suicidal individual by chasing him into his bedroom,
screaming at him, and pepper-spraying him. 252 Fed.
Cite as: 595 U. S. ____ (2021) 5
Appx., at 206. Suffice it to say, a reasonable officer could
miss the connection between that case and this one.
Neither the panel majority nor the respondent have identified a single precedent finding a Fourth Amendment violation under similar circumstances. 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.
It is so ordered.
Cite as: 595 U. S. ____ (2021) 1
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
DANIEL RIVAS-VILLEGAS v. RAMON CORTESLUNA
ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED
STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT
No. 20–1539. Decided October 18, 2021
Petitioner Daniel Rivas-Villegas, a police officer in Union
City, California, responded to a 911 call reporting that a
woman and her two children were barricaded in a room for
fear that respondent Ramon Cortesluna, the woman’s boyfriend, was going to hurt them. After confirming that the
family had no way of escaping the house, Rivas-Villegas
and the other officers present commanded Cortesluna outside and onto the ground. Officers saw a knife in Cortesluna’s left pocket. While Rivas-Villegas and another officer were in the process of removing the knife and
handcuffing Cortesluna, Rivas-Villegas briefly placed his
knee on the left side of Cortesluna’s back. Cortesluna later
sued under Rev. Stat. §1979, 42 U. S. C. §1983, alleging, as
relevant, that Rivas-Villegas used excessive force. At issue
here is whether Rivas-Villegas is entitled to qualified immunity because he did not violate clearly established law.
The undisputed facts are as follows. A 911 operator received a call from a crying 12-year-old girl reporting that
she, her mother, and her 15-year-old sister had shut themselves into a room at their home because her mother’s boyfriend, Cortesluna, was trying to hurt them and had a
chainsaw. The girl told the operator that Cortesluna was
“‘always drinking,’” had “‘anger issues,’” was “‘really
mad,’” and was using the chainsaw to “‘break something in
the house.’” Cortesluna v. Leon, 979 F. 3d 645, 649 (CA9
2020). A police dispatcher relayed this information along
with a description of Cortesluna in a request for officers to
2 RIVAS-VILLEGAS v. CORTESLUNA
Rivas-Villegas heard the broadcast and responded to the
scene along with four other officers. The officers spent several minutes observing the home and reported seeing
through a window a man matching Cortesluna’s description. One officer asked whether the girl and her family
could exit the house. Dispatch responded that they “‘were
unable to get out’” and confirmed that the 911 operator had
“‘hear[d] sawing in the background’” and thought that Cortesluna might be trying to saw down the door. Cortesluna
v. Leon, 2018 WL 6727824, *2 (ND Cal., Dec. 21, 2018).
After receiving this information, Rivas-Villegas knocked
on the door and stated loudly, “‘police department, come to
the front door, Union City police, come to the front door.’”
Ibid. Another officer yelled, “‘he’s coming and has a
weapon.’” Ibid. A different officer then stated, “‘use lesslethal,’” referring to a beanbag shotgun. Ibid. When RivasVillegas ordered Cortesluna to “‘drop it,’” Cortesluna
dropped the “weapon,” later identified as a metal tool. Ibid.
Rivas-Villegas then commanded, “‘come out, put your
hands up, walk out towards me.’” 979 F. 3d, at 650. Cortesluna put his hands up and Rivas-Villegas told him to
“‘keep coming.’” Ibid. As Cortesluna walked out of the
house and toward the officers, Rivas-Villegas said, “‘Stop.
Get on your knees.’” Ibid. Plaintiff stopped 10 to 11 feet
from the officers. Another officer then saw a knife sticking
out from the front left pocket of Cortesluna’s pants and
shouted, “‘he has a knife in his left pocket, knife in his
pocket,’” and directed Cortesluna, “‘don’t put your hands
down,’” “‘hands up.’” 2018 WL 6727824, *2. Cortesluna
turned his head toward the instructing officer but then lowered his head and his hands in contravention of the officer’s
orders. Another officer twice shot Cortesluna with a beanbag round from his shotgun, once in the lower stomach and
once in the left hip.
After the second shot, Cortesluna raised his hands over
his head. The officers shouted for him to “‘get down,’”
Cite as: 595 U. S. ____ (2021) 3
which he did. Another officer stated, “‘left pocket, he’s got
a knife.’” Ibid. Rivas-Villegas then straddled Cortesluna.
He placed his right foot on the ground next to Cortesluna’s
right side with his right leg bent at the knee. He placed his
left knee on the left side of Cortesluna’s back, near where
Cortesluna had a knife in his pocket. He raised both of Cortesluna’s arms up behind his back. Rivas-Villegas was in
this position for no more than eight seconds before standing
up while continuing to hold Cortesluna’s arms. At that
point, another officer, who had just removed the knife from
Cortesluna’s pocket and tossed it away, came and handcuffed Cortesluna’s hands behind his back. Rivas-Villegas
lifted Cortesluna up and moved him away from the door.
Cortesluna brought suit under 42 U. S. C. §1983, claiming, as relevant here, that Rivas-Villegas used excessive
force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The District
Court granted summary judgment to Rivas-Villegas, but
the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed. 979
F. 3d, at 656.
The Court of Appeals held that “Rivas-Villegas is not entitled to qualified immunity because existing precedent put
him on notice that his conduct constituted excessive force.”
Id., at 654. In reaching this conclusion, the Court of Appeals relied solely on LaLonde v. County of Riverside, 204
F. 3d 947 (CA9 2000). The court acknowledged that “the
officers here responded to a more volatile situation than did
the officers in LaLonde.” 979 F. 3d, at 654. Nevertheless,
it reasoned: “Both LaLonde and this case involve suspects
who were lying face-down on the ground and were not resisting either physically or verbally, on whose back the defendant officer leaned with a knee, causing allegedly significant injury.” Ibid.
Judge Collins dissented. As relevant, he argued that “the
facts of LaLonde are materially distinguishable from this
case and are therefore insufficient to have made clear to
every reasonable officer that the force Rivas-Villegas used
4 RIVAS-VILLEGAS v. CORTESLUNA
here was excessive.” Id., at 664 (internal quotation marks
We agree and therefore reverse. Even assuming that controlling Circuit precedent clearly establishes law for purposes of §1983, LaLonde did not give fair notice to RivasVillegas. He is thus entitled to qualified immunity.
“Qualified immunity attaches when an official’s conduct
does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have
known.” White v. Pauly, 580 U. S. ___, ___ (2017) (per curiam) (slip op., at 6) (internal quotation marks omitted). A
right is clearly established when it is “sufficiently clear that
every reasonable official would have understood that what
he is doing violates that right.” Mullenix v. Luna, 577 U. S.
7, 11 (2015) (per curiam) (internal quotation marks omitted). Although “this Court’s case law does not require a case
directly on point for a right to be clearly established, existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate.” White, 580 U. S., at ___
(slip op., at 6) (alterations and internal quotation marks
omitted). This inquiry “must be undertaken in light of the
specific context of the case, not as a broad general proposition.” Brosseau v. Haugen, 543 U. S. 194, 198 (2004) (per
curiam) (internal quotation marks omitted).
“[S]pecificity is especially important in the Fourth
Amendment context, where . . . it is sometimes difficult for
an officer to determine how the relevant legal doctrine, here
excessive force, will apply to the factual situation the officer
confronts.” Mullenix, 577 U. S., at 12 (alterations and internal quotation marks omitted). Whether an officer has
used excessive force depends on “the facts and circumstances of each particular case, including the severity of the
crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate
threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he
is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by
flight.” Graham v. Connor, 490 U. S. 386, 396 (1989); see
Cite as: 595 U. S. ____ (2021) 5
also Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U. S. 1, 11 (1985) (“Where the
officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses
a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to
others, it is not constitutionally unreasonable to prevent escape by using deadly force”). However, Graham’s and Garner’s standards are cast “at a high level of generality.”
Brosseau, 543 U. S., at 199. “[I]n an obvious case, these
standards can ‘clearly establish’ the answer, even without
a body of relevant case law.” Ibid. But this is not an obvious case. Thus, to show a violation of clearly established
law, Cortesluna must identify a case that put Rivas-Villegas on notice that his specific conduct was unlawful.
Cortesluna has not done so. Neither Cortesluna nor the
Court of Appeals identified any Supreme Court case that
addresses facts like the ones at issue here. Instead, the
Court of Appeals relied solely on its precedent in LaLonde.
Even assuming that Circuit precedent can clearly establish
law for purposes of §1983, LaLonde is materially distinguishable and thus does not govern the facts of this case.
In LaLonde, officers were responding to a neighbor’s complaint that LaLonde had been making too much noise in his
apartment. 204 F. 3d, at 950–951. When they knocked on
LaLonde’s door, he “appeared in his underwear and a Tshirt, holding a sandwich in his hand.” Id., at 951.
LaLonde testified that, after he refused to let the officers
enter his home, they did so anyway and informed him he
would be arrested for obstruction of justice. Ibid. One officer then knocked the sandwich from LaLonde’s hand and
“grabbed LaLonde by his ponytail and knocked him backwards to the ground.” Id., at 952. After a short scuffle, the
officer sprayed LaLonde in the face with pepper spray. At
that point, LaLonde ceased resisting and another officer,
while handcuffing LaLonde, “deliberately dug his knee into
LaLonde’s back with a force that caused him long-term if
not permanent back injury.” Id., at 952, 960, n. 17.
The situation in LaLonde and the situation at issue here
6 RIVAS-VILLEGAS v. CORTESLUNA
diverge in several respects. In LaLonde, officers were responding to a mere noise complaint, whereas here they
were responding to a serious alleged incident of domestic
violence possibly involving a chainsaw. In addition,
LaLonde was unarmed. Cortesluna, in contrast, had a
knife protruding from his left pocket for which he had just
previously appeared to reach. Further, in this case, video
evidence shows, and Cortesluna does not dispute, that Rivas-Villegas placed his knee on Cortesluna for no more than
eight seconds and only on the side of his back near the knife
that officers were in the process of retrieving. LaLonde, in
contrast, testified that the officer deliberately dug his knee
into his back when he had no weapon and had made no
threat when approached by police. These facts, considered
together in the context of this particular arrest, materially
distinguish this case from LaLonde.
“Precedent involving similar facts can help move a case
beyond the otherwise hazy borders between excessive and
acceptable force and thereby provide an officer notice that
a specific use of force is unlawful.” Kisela v. Hughes, 584
U. S. ___, ___ (2018) (per curiam) (slip op., at 5) (internal
quotation marks omitted). On the facts of this case, neither
LaLonde nor any decision of this Court is sufficiently similar. 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.
It is so ordered
Cops and others in government were able to operate for years and years without qualified immunity. Let the operate without it again.
The actual opinions are a little different than the HillofTrash spin, aren’t they?
Read the opinions and not theHillofTrash spin.
Do you think my opinion of QI was formed by this article?
Not smart to bring a hammer to a gun fight.
It most certainly is formed by the media spin.
QI is not absolute immunity. It doesn’t apply to reckless, grossly negligent, criminal, willful, wanton, or sadistic conduct.
It applies only where the officer is acting in good faith, and not violating clearly established law.
That’s not the picture that the media paints, and the opinions here show that. The clown with the hammer deserved to be shot.
So, let’s say police around the country get a pass on the vaccine mandates that the SCOTUS won’t overturn.
“It’s a bit confusing in light of all the mandated vaccine mandates, but this article is actually taking about “qualified immunity” in the law. For a cop, it is giving them “immunity” from prosecution in terms of carrying out their duties, with limits.
Whoops, wrong “immunity” topic. Thanks for the clarification.
Theory vs actual application by actual judges (like Jessop v. City of Fresno).
Still, I never said or implied it was absolute immunity … that’s your strawman.
But just the same it should simply be done away with.
I was thinking this was about COVID until I clicked on it. Shame, I was hoping the SC recognized natural immunity as being as qualified as the jab.
Neither of those sounded like bad behavior on the part of the cops. They’re gonna need better cases than that to break police immunity.
The principle of Qualified Immunity has been around for a long time, and is reasonable. The application of QI is often two steps from the principle and reasonableness. That doesn’t appear to be the case here.
As long as we can also sue Judges and politicians.
Seems like designed issues that went thru the system to get qualified immunity for government again.
1967 is not that long of a time. And it was initially created entirely by SCOTUS which does NOT have the Legislative power.
Neither of these cases sound like they have to do with qualified immunity.
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