The Supreme Court Deals a Major Blow to Qualified Immunity Reform
The Supreme Court on Monday issued two opinions awarding qualified immunity to police officers accused of brutality, overturning lower court decisions that came to the opposite conclusion. The Court has thus prohibited the alleged victims from seeking accountability in civil court.
The doctrine of qualified immunity shields government actors from civil suits if the ways in which they are said to have misbehaved, and the exact circumstances surrounding the events in question, have not yet been spelled out as unconstitutional in a prior court ruling.
It can be a low bar. Previous recipients of qualified immunity include two cops who allegedly stole $225,000 while executing a search warrant, more than 24 cops who damaged an innocent man’s house during a drug raid on the wrong residence, cops who shot children, and cops who used force against subdued suspects and those who had surrendered—not because their conduct was necessarily permissible but because no court precedent had yet said the precise components of each case violated the Constitution.
Monday’s decision adds a few more to that list, including a cop in Union City, California, accused of injuring a man after pressing his left knee into the suspect’s back, as well as two officers in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, who shot and killed a man wielding a hammer.
Whether or not those officers deserve to pay damages to their accusers is not a question I have the answer to. But it’s a question that should be answered by a jury of their peers, who are constitutionally tasked with taking on that duty—and not a few judges sitting on high. Should the Supreme Court have agreed with the lower courts’ decisions and decided to withhold qualified immunity, neither plaintiff would have necessarily been awarded damages: They would simply have been legally permitted to argue their case before a jury, which they will now not have the privilege of doing.
In the first case, Officer Daniel Rivas-Villegas responded to a 911 call from a 12-year-old, who was afraid that Ramon Cortesluna, her mother’s ex-boyfriend, would hurt her and her family. When Rivas-Villegas apprehended Cortesluna on the ground, he allegedly injured him by digging his knee into his back for eight seconds. According to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, it was already clearly established law that an officer violates the Fourth Amendment when he acts in such a way with “suspects who were lying face-down on the ground and were not resisting either physically or verbally, on whose back the defendant officer leaned with a knee, cau
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