SCOTUS Reverses Ninth Circuit And Finds Officer Is Immune From Liability In Excessive Force Case

On April 2, 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States, in Andrew Kisela v. Amy Hughes, granted summary judgment in favor of police officer Andrew Kisela on the grounds that he was entitled to a qualified immunity – an immunity that attaches when an official’s conduct does not violate clearly established law.

Case Background

The case stems from a May 2010, officer-involved shooting in Tucson, Arizona, involving Kisela and Amy Hughes. Kisela and two other officers responded to a 911 call of a woman (later identified as Hughes) who was engaging in erratic behavior with a knife, including hacking a tree with the knife. When the officers arrived, the person that called 911 flagged down the officers and provided a description of the woman with the knife and reiterated the woman was acting erratically. The officers spotted a woman, Sharon Chadwick, standing next to a car in the driveway of a house nearby. The woman and the officers were separated by a locked chain-link fence. Then, Hughes, matching the description provided by the 911 caller emerged from the home with a large knife by her side. Hughes was no more than six feet from Chadwick.

All three officers drew their guns and commanded Hughes, at least twice, to drop the knife. Chadwick heard the commands. Chadwick said “take it easy” to both Hughes and the officers.  Hughes appeared calm, but she did not acknowledge the officers’ presence or drop the knife.  Kisela dropped to the ground and shot Hughes four times through the fence. Hughes had non-life-threatening injuries. Less than a minute transpired from the moment the officers saw Chadwick to the time Kisela fired shots.

At the time the shots were fired, all officers subjectively believed Hughes to be a threat to Chadwick. In an affidavit, Chadwick stated she did not feel threatened at any time because she was aware her roommate, Hughes, “occasionally has episodes where she acts inappropriately,” but “she is only seeking attention.”  The officers, however, did not know this at the time of the shooting.  Hughes sued Kisela alleging he violated her Fourth Amendment rights by using excessive force.

The Ruling

Before arriving to the Supreme Court, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held:

(1) The record was sufficient to establish that police Kisela’s use of force was objectively unreasonable (a violation of the Fourth Amendment); and

(2) Kisela was not entitled to qualified immunity because the constitutional violation was obvious.

In reversing the Ninth Circuit, the Supreme Court did not even evaluate if Kisela violated the Fourth Amendment when he used deadly force against Hughes because it held that, irrespective of a violation of the law, Kisela was entitled to qualified immunity.  The Supreme Court highlighted the fact Kisela “had mere seconds to assess the potential danger to Chadwick” after being “confronted with a woman who had just been seen hacking a tree with a large kitchen knife….” Additionally, Hughes’s “behavior was erratic enough to cause a concerned bystander to call 911…,” she moved “within a few feet of Chadwick, and she ignored the officers’ commands. The Supreme Court concluded “[t]his is far from an obvious case in which any competent officer would have known that shooting Hughes to protect Chadwick would violate the Fourth Amendment….”

The Dissent

Justices Sotomayor penned a lengthy dissent, which Justice Ginsburg joined. Her dissent focused on several facts, the most significant being Hughes held the knife down with the blade facing away from Chadwick during the course of the interaction, she had committed no illegal act, and she appeared “composed and content.” Additionally, the two other officers, faced with the same facts as Kisela, did not fire.

The Takeaway

In reversing the Ninth Circuit, the Supreme Court once again reminded lower courts that they should avoid readings prior decisions too broadly and, instead, they should look at the specific facts of each case to determine whether an officer is entitled to qualified immunity in cases alleging excessive force.

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