The US Supreme Court issued two unsigned orders Monday regarding qualified immunity for police officers.
The first of the unsigned orders involves Rivas-Villegas v. Cortesluna, a case based on an incident in 2016. Daniel Rivas-Villegas is a police officer who responded to a 911 call from a 12-year-old girl reporting that she, her sibling, and her mother had barricaded themselves in a bedroom because Ramon Cortesluna, her mother’s boyfriend, was threatening them with a chainsaw. Officers arrived and ordered Cortesluna to come out of the house with his hands up. He did, and officers saw he had a knife in his front pocket. They ordered him to keep his hands up, but he put them down, and officers shot him twice with bean bag rounds.
After he was face down on the ground, Officer Rivas-Villegas straddled Cortesluna, placing his left knee on the left side of Cortesluna’s back for no more than eight seconds before he stood up again. Cortesluna brought suit claiming that Rivas-Villegas used excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. While the district court granted summary judgment to Rivas-Villegas, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision. The circuit court held that existing precedent put the officer on notice that his conduct constituted excessive force, therefore he was not entitled to qualified immunity.
However, the Court noted that the Ninth Circuit relied on a single case, LaLonde v. County of Riverside, to put Rivas-Villegas on notice of excessive force. The Court found that the facts, in that case, were sufficiently different to be materially distinguishable from the facts here. LaLonde did not give Rivas-Villegas fair notice, thus he is entitled to qualified immunity.
The second case was City of Tahlequah v. Bond. On August 12, 2016, Rollice, who was intoxicated at the time, was in his ex-wife’s garage and would not leave. She called 911, explaining that the situation would “get ugly real quick” if the police did not come. Not long after the police arrived, Rollice picked up a claw hammer and raised it over his head as if to swing or throw it at them. Two officers shot and killed Rollice. Rollice’s estate sued, alleging that the officers had violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force.
The district court found the officers’ use of force reasonable, and even if it was not, qualified immunity applied, preventing the case from going any further. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision, ruling that it was the officers’ conduct that led to the shooting and that certain Tenth Circuit precedents meant that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity. The Court, however, chastised the Tenth Circuit and sent a message to the other circuits “not to define clearly established law at too high a level of generality.”
A rule must not merely be suggested by existing precedent if must be so well-defined as to be clear to an officer that his conduct is unlawful. That specificity is especially important in the context of excessive force, where it can be difficult for an officer to know how to apply legal doctrines to the factual situation they face on the ground. The Court also rejected the decisions that the Tenth Circuit cited, saying that none of them “comes close to establishing that the officers’ conduct was unlawful.” The officers involved in Rollice’s shooting were therefore entitled to qualified immunity.