A few days ago I wrote about a recent qualified immunity decision from the Supreme Court, which has been summarily reversing lower court rulings on this issue without oral argument, finding, on immunity grounds, that a Section 1983 plaintiff cannot bring an excessive force claim against the police. This is another such case.
The case is City of Tahequah v. Bond, issued on October 18. It happened in Oklahoma. The decedent's ex-wife called the police because Dominic was intoxicated, would not leave the home, and "it's going to get ugly real quick." When the police showed up, Dominic led them into the garage and he began fidgeting with something before he grabbed a hammer and held it in a manner suggesting he was going to swing it like a baseball bat or even throw it or charge the officers. The officers were six feet away. Dominic did not drop the hammer and the police shot and killed him.
The Tenth Circuit said the jury may find that the police shooting was excessive and the officers recklessly created the situation that led to the fatal shooting by cornering Dominic. The Supreme Court reverses without oral argument or extended briefing, holding that the law was not clearly-established that facts like this give rise to a Fourth Amendment violation.
Qualified immunity gets police officers off the hook if no prior case law suggests their actions were unconstitutional. That does not mean there has to be a case on all fours, but the prior case must come close. The point is that only the most incompetent public officials may be get sued. Otherwise, they get the benefit of the doubt.
What wins the case for the officers is that the Tenth Circuit cases that that court relied upon in rejecting qualified immunity are quite unlike this one. One case, Allen v. Muskogee, 119 F.3d 837 (10th Cir. 1997), involved a potential suicide victim whom the police shot and killed after they ran toward him and tried to wrest a gun from his hands. That is not this case, the Supreme Court says. Another Tenth Circuit case says in dicta that deliberate pre-seizure police conduct can give rise to an excessive force case. But that case is no good because the Tenth Circuit in that case held it had no jurisdiction to even hear the case. You see where we are going with this. The prior cases have to be a tight fit with this one.