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Qualified Immunity As An Absolute Shield

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The Supreme Court today reversed a unanimous 9CA panel, holding that a police officer who shot a woman in her front yard was entitled to the protections of qualified immunity, preventing a jury from hearing the lawsuit. Justice Sotomayor, in her dissent, summarizes the issue:

Officer Andrew Kisela shot Amy Hughes while she was speaking with her roommate, Sharon Chadwick, outside of their home. The record, properly construed at this stage, shows that at the time of the shooting: Hughes stood stationary about six feet away from Chadwick, appeared “composed and content,”and held a kitchen knife down at her side with the blade facing away from Chadwick. Hughes was nowhere near the officers, had committed no illegal act, was suspected of no crime, and did not raise the knife in the direction of Chadwick or anyone else. Faced with these facts, the two other responding officers held their fire, and one testified that he “wanted to continue trying verbal command[s] and see if that would work.” But not Kisela. He thought it necessary to use deadly force, and so, without giving a warning that he would open fire, he shot Hughes four times, leaving her seriously injured.

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. 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. I therefore respectfully dissent.

That the majority disagreed is not surprising. As Sotomayor observes, even as Black Lives Matter has given the problem of arbitrary police violence more attention, the Court has been extremely aggressive about keeping cases where the police potentially violates the rights of citizens away from juries:

For the foregoing reasons, it is clear to me that the Court of Appeals got it right. But even if that result were not so clear, I cannot agree with the majority’s apparent view that the decision below was so manifestly incorrect as to warrant “the extraordinary remedy of a summary reversal.” “A summary reversal is a rare disposition, usually reserved by this Court for situations in which the law is settled and stable, the facts are not in dispute, and the decision below is clearly in error.” This is not such a case. The relevant facts are hotly disputed, and the qualified-immunity question here is, at the very best, a close call. Rather than letting this case go to a jury, the Court decides to intervene prematurely, purporting to correct an error that is not at all clear.

This unwarranted summary reversal is symptomatic of “a disturbing trend regarding the use of this Court’s resources” in qualified-immunity cases. As I have previously noted, this Court routinely displays an unflinching willingness “to summarily reverse courts for wrongly denying officers the protection of qualified immunity” but “rarely intervene[s] where courts wrongly afford officers the benefit of qualified immunity in these same cases.” Such a one-sided approach to qualified immunity transforms the doctrine into an absolute shield for law enforcement officers, gutting the deterrent effect of the Fourth Amendment.

The majority today exacerbates that troubling asymmetry. Its 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.

Sotomayor’s dissent was joined by Ginsburg, but not Breyer or Kagan. Sotomayor, well-established as the most important civil libertarian voice on the Court since Brennan and Marshall, will be one of Obama’s greatest legacies. Kagan certainly has her virtues, but also represents money being left on the table.

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