City of Tahlequah v. Bond and Rivas-Villegas v. Cortesluna: Officers entitled to qualified immunity in excessive force cases
The U.S. Supreme Court opened its October 2021 Term by holding that police officers were entitled to qualified immunity in two cases involving claims of excessive force.
The officers were entitled to qualified immunity because there was no Supreme Court case which clearly established that their conduct was unlawful.
The cases are City of Tahlequah, Oklahoma v. Bond, and Rivas-Villegas v. Cortesluna, both decided October 18.
In Bond, Dominic Rollice’s ex-wife called police to report that Rollice was intoxicated in her garage, and would not leave.
When police arrived, Rollice expressed concern about going to jail. Police asked if they could pat Rollice down for weapons, but he refused.
Rollice grabbed a hammer and held it as if to swing at the officers.
Officers drew their guns, and ordered Rollice to drop the hammer, but he did not.
Rollice raised the hammer back behind his head as if to throw it. Officers then shot Rollice, killing him.
Rollice’s estate bought a Sec. 1983 action against the officers for use of excessive force under the Fourth Amendment.
The District Court held the officers had qualified immunity, but the Tenth Circuit reversed.
The Supreme Court, in a unanimous per curiam opinion, reversed. The Court held the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because their conduct “plainly did not violate any clearly established federal law.”
“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,” the Court said.
“We have repeatedly told courts not to define clearly established law at too high a level of generality,” the Court said.
“It is not enough that a rule has been suggested by then-existing precedent,” the Court said. “[T]he 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.”
The cases relied on by the Tenth Circuit do not come close to establishing that the officers’ conduct was unlawful, the Court said.
There is not “a single precedent finding a Fourth Amendment violation under similar circumstances,” the Court concluded. “The officers were thus entitled to qualified immunity.”
In Cortesluna, police in Union City, Calif., were called to a residence where a woman and her children were barricaded in a bedroom for fear of the woman’s ex-boyfriend, Ramon Cortesluna.
Officers ordered Cortesluna to come out of the house. Cortesluna came out with what police thought was a weapon. They ordered him to “drop it,” which he did. The “weapon” was later identified as a metal tool.
Officers then saw a knife in Cortesluna’s pocket. Officers ordered him to put his hands up, but when he lowered his hands, officers shot him with a “bean bag” round.
Officers then ordered him to get on the ground, which he did. An officer then placed his knee on Cortesluna’s back and raised both his arms behind his back for about eight seconds, while another officer removed the knife.
Cortesluna sued the officer who put his knee on him and lifted his arms for excessive force.
The District Court granted summary judgment for the officer, but the Ninth Circuit reversed. The Ninth Circuit ruled that existing precedent should have put the officer on notice that his conduct constituted excessive force.
But the Supreme Court reversed, in a unanimous per curiam opinion.
The case relied on by the Ninth Circuit “did not give fair notice” to officer that his conduct was unlawful, the Court said.
“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,” the Court said. “[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.”
“Neither Cortesluna nor the Court of Appeals identified any Supreme Court case that addressed facts like the ones at issue here,” the Court said.