US Supreme Court Again Decides in Favor of Qualified Immunity for Law Enforcement in Shootings

By: Karina Johnson
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

WASHINGTON D.C.  — On Monday, April 2, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a 7-2 decision to grant qualified immunity from prosecution to a police officer, Andrew Kisela, who shot a woman, Amy Hughes, for holding a kitchen knife outside her home.

Officers are entitled to qualified immunity as long as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. Photo Courtesy of J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press.

In May 2010, Kisela and his partner responded to a 911 call reporting a woman acting erratically and hacking a tree with a kitchen knife.  They were joined by another police officer and saw Hughes—carrying a large kitchen knife—and her roommate, Sharon Chadwick, exiting their house.  The three officers drew their weapons and ordered Hughes to drop the knife.  When Hughes did not acknowledge the officers’ presence, Kisela shot Hughes four times.  The entire encounter occurred in less than a minute.

While the three officers later testified that they believed Hughes to be a threat to her roommate, Chadwick said that Hughes was speaking to her calmly from six feet away and that Chadwick at no time felt threatened by Hughes.  Kisela was the only officer to shoot at Hughes, and he did so without warning.

Hughes sued Kisela in a §1983 claim for $150,000 in damages, alleging that his use of deadly force was a violation of her Fourth Amendment rights.  Initially, a federal judge had granted summary judgment in favor of Kisela, but that ruling was reversed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Supreme Court’s per curiam decision overturned the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in favor of Hughes without full briefings or oral arguments.  Justice Sotomayor wrote a dissenting opinion and was joined by Justice Ginsberg.

Qualified immunity protects ‘all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.’ To challenge qualified immunity, courts must determine through precedent (1) if the official’s conduct counts as a violation of the plaintiff’s rights; and (2) if the plaintiff’s rights were clearly established.  The Supreme Court determined that Kisela’s conduct, by shooting Hughes four times as she stood still in front of her house, did not violate any of Hughes’ established rights.

In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor wrote that the Supreme Court’s “one-sided approach to qualified immunity transforms the doctrine into an absolute shield for law enforcement officers, gutting the deterrent effect of the Fourth Amendment,” and that “it tells officers that they can shoot first and think later, and it tells the public that palpably unreasonable conduct will go unpunished.”

The Washington Post noted that the Supreme Court has developed a trend of siding in favor of law enforcement officers by reversing lower courts that deny qualified immunity to police.  Police officials applaud the Supreme Court’s broad approach, which they say give officers the benefit of the doubt and protect them from “frivolous lawsuits.”  Critics such as the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute believe this approach virtually absolves law enforcement from accountability for their misconduct.

The majority’s decision comes 15 days after police officers killed Stephon Clark while he was standing in his grandmother’s backyard in Sacramento, California.  It comes 3 days after the Louisiana Attorney General declined to file charges against the two Baton Rouge police officers that shot Alton Sterling at point-blank range outside of a convenience store while they had him pinned to the ground.  As of April 1, there have been 325 reports of people killed by police in the United States since January 1, 2018.

For more information, please see:

NPR – Police Shootings Stir Outrage Among Some, But Not The Supreme Court – 3 April 2018

The Washington Post – Ariz. woman survives police shooting, but Supreme Court says the officer is immune from her lawsuit – 3 April 2018

The Hill – Supreme Court rules police officer cannot be sued for shooting Arizona woman in her front yard – 2 April 2018

The New York Times – Supreme Court Rules for Police Officer in Excessive Force Case – 2 April 2018

SCOTUS Blog – Kisela v. Hughes – 2 April 2018

Slate – The Conservatives vs. Sonia Sotomayor – 2 April 2018

The Washington Post – What is “qualified immunity,” and how does it work? – 14 July 2015

Author: Karina Johnson

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