Qualified immunity is a doctrine that can shield police officers and other public officials from civil suits when they violate individual rights in the course of their official duties. According to the doctrine, courts are supposed to first determine whether an individual’s right was violated and then proceed to determine whether the violation was “clearly established” in the jurisdiction—that is, whether the circumstances had happened before. This can lead to perverse outcomes in which a court can find an officer violated someone’s rights, but if the officer did so in a way completely novel, then the officer cannot be held liable for the violation. In other cases, courts can find that similar sounding circumstances aren’t the same and thus officers may prevail because those differences render the right not “clearly established.”
This morning, the Supreme Court ordered a summary reversal of a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion that had denied qualified immunity to an officer for shooting and injuring a woman. The woman, Ms. Amy Hughes, had a knife at her side and she posed no immediate threat to the officers or the person she was speaking to at the time she was shot. Other officers on the scene held their fire and were trying to gain Hughes' cooperation before Officer Andrew Kisela shot at her four times. Unfortunately, such decisions have become all too familiar at SCOTUS.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote a scathing dissent of the per curiam order:
If this account of Kisela’s conduct sounds unreasonable, that is because it was. And yet, the Court today insulates that conduct from liability under the doctrine of qualified immunity, holding that Kisela violated no “clearly established” law. I disagree. Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Hughes, as the Court must at summary judgment, a jury could find that Kisela violated Hughes’ clearly established Fourth Amendment rights by needlessly resorting to lethal force. In holding otherwise, the Court misapprehends the facts and misapplies the law, effectively treating qualified immunity as an absolute shield.
This Court’s precedents make clear that a police officer may only deploy deadly force against an individual if the officer “has probable cause to believe that the [person] poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others.” It is equally well established that any use of lethal force must be justified by some legitimate governmental interest. Consistent with those clearly established principles, and contrary to the majority’s conclusion, Ninth Circuit precedent predating these events further confirms that Kisela’s conduct was clearly unreasonable. Because Kisela plainly lacked any legitimate interest justifying the use of deadly force against a woman who posed no objective threat of harm to officers or others, had committed no crime, and appeared calm and collected during the police encounter, he was not entitled to qualified immunity.
In sum, precedent existing at the time of the shooting clearly established the unconstitutionality of Kisela’s conduct. The majority’s decision, no matter how much it says otherwise, ultimately rests on a faulty premise: that those cases are not identical to this one. But that is not the law, for our cases have never required a factually identical case to satisfy the “clearly established” standard. It is enough that governing law places “the constitutionality of the officer’s conduct beyond debate.” Because, taking the facts in the light most favorable to Hughes, it is “beyond debate” that Kisela’s use of deadly force was objectively unreasonable, he was not entitled to summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity.
[The majority's] decision is not just wrong on the law; it also sends an alarming signal to law enforcement officers and the public. It tells officers that they can shoot first and think later, and it tells the public that palpably unreasonable conduct will go unpunished. Because there is nothing right or just under the law about this, I respectfully dissent. (Citations omitted)
Today’s order was disappointing, but not surprising. Regular readers know that Cato’s Project on Criminal Justice is now dedicating resources to fighting the doctrine of qualified immunity, and it’s clear that most of the sitting justices support the doctrine. But the fight is worth it because qualified immunity effectively guts the best civil rights protection in federal law and, more broadly, police officers must be held accountable for their unconstitutional actions.
If you're interested in learning more, you can view the launch event of our qualified immunity effort here. You can read our first amicus brief in the effort here. You can also read Will Baude’s excellent law review article that Justice Sotomayor cited in her dissent, “Is Qualified Immunity Unlawful?” here, (spoiler alert: Yes it is!). And more here, here, and here.