The Supreme Court sides with the police in 2 qualified immunity cases: NPR

The United States Supreme Court is seen on October 5, 2021 in Washington, DC The court is holding in-person arguments for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images

The United States Supreme Court is seen on October 5, 2021 in Washington, DC The court is holding in-person arguments for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images

The United States Supreme Court has ruled in favor of police officers in two qualified immunity cases, the controversial legal doctrine that protects police officers accused of misconduct.

Both cases concerned police officers accused of using excessive force in response to domestic disturbances. In one, officers used bean balls and a knee on the suspect’s back to subdue him; in the second, the police shot dead the suspect after he approached them with a hammer.

The two decisions the court handed down on Monday were not signed. No judge expressed his dissent.

Qualified immunity refers to a series of legal precedents that protect government officials – including police officers – accused of violating constitutional rights.

To win a civil action against a police officer, plaintiffs must prove that the officer violated “a clearly established law”, most often by citing previous factually similar cases. Otherwise, agents are protected against any liability.

Police advocates say qualified immunity is needed so that police can do their often dangerous jobs without fear of frivolous prosecution.

But those in favor of criminal justice reform say the doctrine has essentially created a catch-22, where officers are immune to liability even in cases where it appears they have violated rights. civilians – but because no identical precedent already exists, officers are protected.

In practice, doctrine has protected officers from liability in hundreds of civil cases, even when accused of destroying property, killing innocent people they have mistaken for, or stealing thousands of people. dollars.

The cases concerned police officers accused of excessive use of force

The first of two Monday cases involved Daniel Rivas-Villegas, a police officer in Union City, Calif., Who answered a 911 call from a 12-year-old girl who, along with her mother and 15-year-old sister, had barricaded herself in a room to hide from her mother’s boyfriend, Ramon Cortesluna, who allegedly used a chainsaw to destroy items in the house.

When officers arrived and confronted Cortesluna, they discovered he was carrying a knife. Another officer fired two non-lethal beanbag rounds at Cortesluna, after which he followed police orders to lie down. Rivas-Villegas knelt on Cortesluna’s back and raised his arms as another officer retrieved the knife. After the incident, Cortesluna sued for excessive use of force.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that Rivas-Villegas was not entitled to qualified immunity, citing similarities to a previous case called LaLonde v. Riverside County, in which two police officers were denied qualified immunity after kneeling in front of an unresisting suspect named John LaLonde.

But in overturning the appeal court’s decision, the Supreme Court cited several other factors that distinguished the two incidents: The Londe were responding to a noise complaint, not a domestic violence emergency; that LaLonde himself was unarmed, while Cortesluna carried a knife; that Rivas-Villegas had knelt on Cortesluna for only eight seconds as the officers retrieved the knife.

In the second case, three police officers from Tahlequah, Oklahoma, responded to an emergency call from a woman whose ex-husband, Dominic Rollice, was drunk and refused to leave his home.

Officers confronted Rollice in the garage, where he grabbed a hammer. The officers drew their guns and shouted at Rollice to drop her. Instead, Rollice walked up to them and raised the hammer higher; two officers shot him and killed him.

A lower court ruled that Tahlequah officers violated Rollice’s Fourth Amendment rights when they “recklessly created the situation that led to the fatal shooting.”

The Supreme Court overturned the court’s decision, saying “none” of the cases cited by the lower court “come close to establishing that the conduct of the officers was unlawful.”

The doctrine has criticism, but so far efforts to change it have not succeeded

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Clarence Thomas – among the more liberal and conservative members of the tribunal, respectively – have previously criticized qualified immunity, though neither of them issued a dissent on Monday.

Congressional Democrats have made several attempts in recent years to limit qualified immunity, although none have yet succeeded. The George Floyd Justice In Policing Act, which was passed by the House, reportedly restricted defense, but negotiations on a compromise bill came to a halt earlier this year.

“By shielding police officers from liability, qualified immunity encourages more police violence against blacks and Browns,” said Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, a co-sponsor of a stand-alone Senate bill that would put end to qualified immunity, on Twitter after Monday’s ruling.

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