Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Supreme Court summarily rejects Ninth Circuit's qualified immunity analysis in police misconduct case

Over the last few years, the Supreme Court has been taking up Section 1983 cases in order to remind the lower courts that police misconduct lawsuits cannot proceed unless the officers have violated clearly-established law. Usually, this exercise results in the Supreme Court either dismissing the case or directing the lower court to review the case once again to ensure the Court's directives are being followed.

The case is City of Escondido v. Emmons, issued on January 7. This case was not argued before the Court. Instead, after Emmons filed a certiorari petition, the Court resolved the issue on the papers, a common practice these days in qualified immunity cases involving the police.

Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that says the police (and other public officials) cannot be sued for damages in civil rights cases unless they violated clearly-established case law that put the defendants on notice that they were violating the law. Not all legal issues are clearly-established, primarily because the universe of factual situations have not yet been decided by the federal courts, and it is not enough to say the law is clearly-established simply because the law prohibits the excessive use of force by a police officer. In determining whether the law is clearly-established, the courts ask whether, given the facts of any given case, was the officer on notice that excessive force was illegal.

In this case, the police showed up to a woman's apartment in a domestic incident after someone called the police. Here are the facts:

The officers knocked on the door of the apartment. No one answered. But a side window was open, and the officers spoke with Emmons through that window, attempting to convince her to open the door to the apartment so that they could conduct a welfare check. A man in the apartment also told Emmons to back away from the window, but the officers said they could not identify the man. . . .

A few minutes later, a man opened the apartment door and came outside. At that point, Officer Craig was standing alone just outside the door. Officer Craig told the man not to close the door, but the man closed the door and tried to brush past Officer Craig. Officer Craig stopped the man, took him quickly to the ground, and handcuffed him.Officer Craig did not hit the man or display any weapon. The video shows that the man was not in any visible or audible pain as a result of the takedown or while on the ground. Within a few minutes, officers helped the man up and arrested him for a misdemeanor offense of resisting and delaying a police officer.

The Ninth Circuit said the officer who took down Emmons did not have qualified immunity because the law is clearly-established that excessive force is prohibited under the Constitution. In resolving this issue against the police officer, the Ninth Circuit cited a case from that Circuit stating an officer cannot use excessive force when the other guy is engaging in mere passive resistance. But that other case is not this case, the Supreme Court says, reasoning, "The Court of Appeals made no effort to explain how that case law prohibits Officer Craig's actions in this case." What the Supreme Court is saying is that the passive resistance case is not close enough to this case. The Ninth Circuit will have to take up this issue again and scour its own precedents to see if any case comes closer to this one. If there is no such case, then the officer will prevail without trial.

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