Is SCOTUS right protecting police in two qualified immunity cases?
- On October 18, 2021, the Supreme Court handed down their decision in two cases (California’s Rivas-Villegas v. Cortesluna and Oklahoma's City of Tahlequah, Oklahoma v. Rollice). The decision states that “the doctrine of 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,’” and “Qualified immunity attaches when an official’s conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”
- Qualified immunity is a legal concept that “protects state and local officials, including law enforcement officers, from individual liability unless the official violated a clearly established constitutional right.” Congress officially established it into US code in the early 80s (Section 1983).
- In Rivas-Villegas vs. Cortesluna, police officers responded to a 911 call made by a young girl whose mother’s boyfriend, Cortesluna, was damaging their home with a chainsaw. Rivas-Villegas was one of five officers dispatched, noticed a knife Cortesluna’s pocket, knelt his left leg on the suspect’s back to keep him down while another officer removed the knife. Cortesluna was then handcuffed and taken away.
- In City of Tahlequah, Oklahoma vs. Rollice, three police officers responded to a 911 call by a woman who’s intoxicated ex-husband, Rollice, would not leave. When Rollice attempted to attack an officer with a hammer, two officers shot and killed Rollice.
In both cases recently decided by the Supreme Court, the claims that officers used excessive force are the basis of the charges. In the Oklahoma case, the suspect was intoxicated, wielding a hammer, and lifted it further when asked by police to leave the suspect's ex-wife's garage. The suspect was posing a threat to the officers, and they needed to make a split-second decision to protect themselves from the suspect possibly throwing or swinging the hammer at them. In the California case, the officer did not harm the suspect but instead placed his knee on the suspect's back to keep the suspect still while he was handcuffed and removed the weapon on him. Placing a knee on a suspect is a common technique that keeps the suspect still or from escaping while the officer works to handcuff them.
Despite what critics may say, our legal system works and brings people to justice. There are other cases of police using excessive force that much more clearly warrant the officers being charged, and in most cases, they are. In the case of George Floyd, Derek Chauvin—the officer directly implicated in Floyd's killing—was charged and convicted despite qualified immunity existing at the time of his trial.
According to NPR, the qualified immunity doctrine asks two questions: 'Did police use excessive force, and if they did, should they have known that their conduct was illegal because it violated a 'clearly established' prior court ruling that barred such conduct?' It's the Supreme Court's duty to uphold the rule of law, the Constitution, and, in these two cases, to determine if these officers met the standards of qualified immunity. SCOTUS reasonably determined there was no merit to these lawsuits, and that should be enough.
The Supreme Court's decision to protect the police by granting them qualified immunity grants police protection instead of encouraging them to protect those they claim to serve. In the wake of recent social justice movements acknowledging brutality and prejudice in America's police force, this decision is a step in the complete opposite direction.
Qualified immunity protects these officers from being tried unless they violate some 'clearly established law.' This reasoning has been translated into a law that has been taken quite literally through the years. If the exact crime isn't described within the law, the officials in question—the police in this case—are granted protection from civil lawsuits. This leaves the law open to interpretation, and it seems as if police officers are often treated favorably in the court of law.
This often leads to cases in which officers claim 'self-defense' after killing someone, despite having a lack of evidence. Still, any alleged culpability is immediately dismissed due to there being no clearly established law about the extent of protecting yourself. Notable cases like Hagan vs. The City of Cleveland involved limited investigation because the officer was absolved of all guilt upon claiming that he was in danger.
Police officers may feel inclined to operate with a reckless sense of freedom since they are rarely held accountable. Vickers vs. The State of Georgia in 2019 featured a police officer who fired his weapon at a family dog, misfiring and killing a 10-year-old child. The officer fired the gun at the non-threatening dog while a crowd surrounded it, and this resulted in the death of an innocent child. Yet, because of qualified immunity, he was not held liable. SCOTUS would do well to remember cases like these in future decisions.