Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Supreme Court dismisses excessive force claim on qualified immunity grounds

The Supreme Court has issued another qualified immunity ruling that reverses a lower court decision that allowed an excessive force case to proceed against the police. The Court has been doing this for a number of years now, handing down qualified immunity decisions without oral argument, signaling that the lower courts are still allowing too many such cases to proceed.

The case is Rivas-Villegas v. Cortesluna, issued on October 18. It all started when the police got a 911 call stating that the mother's boyfriend was threatening people in the house with a chainsaw. The police arrived and the bad guy exited the house. So now we have a police confrontation. When he was 10-11 feet from the police, they saw a knife sticking out of his pocket. The bad guy appeared to reach for the knife, so the police twice shot him with a beanbag gun, whatever that is. The police officer then told him to get down, which he did. When another officer shouted out that the bad guy had a knife on him, an officer kneeled into his back for about eight seconds in order to seize the knife. 

The Ninth Circuit said the plaintiff-bad guy has an excessive force claim against the kneeling officer, but the Supreme Court reverses on qualified immunity grounds. Officers are entitled to this immunity when they do not violate clearly-established case law. Without clearly-established law, the officers are not on constructive notice they are violating the Constitution. Qualified immunity has been in the news lately, as legal commentators complain that it is quite difficult to win the case unless a prior court decision involves factual allegations that are nearly identical to the present case. Without clearly-established law, the officers cannot be sued and are therefore not accountable. A congressional effort to eliminate or limit this immunity recently failed.

The Supreme Court has been reversing lower court rulings without oral argument over the last decade or so in finding that the facts alleged by the plaintiff did not assert a clearly-established constitutional right. This is another such case. The Court unanimously says that even assuming we look to Ninth Circuit case law, there is no case from that Circuit that resembles this one. This case certainly looks like a close call on the facts so I don't know if the plaintiff could have won the excessive force trial in any event. He certainly was not a sympathetic plaintiff. They did say, after all, that he was threatening people with a chainsaw and exited the house with a knife.

The Court throws in a line that makes it clear that it has never told us exactly what body of case law governs the clearly-established inquiry. Is it appellate rulings from one of the 13 Courts of Appeal? Or is it Supreme Court authority? One of these days, the Court will resolve that issue. If the Court says you can only look to Supreme Court authority, that ruling will make it significantly harder for plaintiffs to win cases, I can tell you that.

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