As a New York resident, you likely are all too aware of the continuing problem in New York, particularly New York City, regarding the use of force by police officers. What you may not be aware of, however, is that earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case that now makes it even more difficult for you to sue a law enforcement officer if (s)he uses excessive force against you.
Federal law allows you to sue a government official in the event (s)he violates your civil rights, such as by using excessive force against you. Even though these laws have existed since Civil War times, however, Supreme Court decisions in recent years have limited your right to sue through a legal doctrine known as qualified immunity.
The doctrine of qualified immunity holds that you may not sue a government official, including a law enforcement officer, except under limited circumstances. Critics argue that qualified immunity is itself a suspect doctrine that the Court created “out of whole cloth” so as to create a public policy of nearly total nonaccountability for overzealous law enforcement officers.
The Kinsela case
The Supreme Court decided its latest qualified immunity case, Kinsela vs. Hughes, in April of this year. A police officer used excessive force against Ms. Hughes while she stood in her Arizona driveway holding a knife. A neighbor called 911 requesting that law enforcement officers conduct a welfare check of another of Ms. Hughes’s neighbors when the requesting neighbor observed Ms. Hughes approaching the alleged potential victim while allegedly brandishing a knife.
Three officers immediately responded to the scene. They observed a woman, later identified as Hughes, walking down her driveway toward the alleged potential victim while holding a knife. Despite the fact that Ms. Hughes merely carried the knife, not brandished it, and that the alleged victim appeared calm, the officers nevertheless ordered Ms. Hughes to drop the knife when she reached a point within six feet of the alleged victim. When she failed to obey their order, one of the officers injured her, handcuffed her, and took her to a local hospital where she subsequently recovered from her injuries.
Ms. Hughes later sued the officer for excessive use of force and for unlawful seizure, i.e., of her body when he arrested her. The officer immediately appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, claiming immunity. The Appeals Court, however, allowed Hughes’s suit to go before a jury, holding that a rational jury could find that she “had a constitutional right to walk down her driveway holding a knife…” The officer appealed once again.
Supreme Court decision
In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court reversed the Appeals Court and held that qualified immunity did indeed shield the officer from Ms. Hughes’s lawsuit. It therefore did not consider the issue of whether or not the officer acted reasonably or used excessive force. Civil liberties advocates on both the right and the left sharply criticized the ruling, as did the two Justices who strongly dissented from the opinion.
The majority of Justices, conversely, ruled that “[P]olice officers are entitled to qualified immunity unless existing precedent squarely governs the specific facts at issue.” What this means, in effect, is that you cannot sue a law enforcement officer for using excessive force against you unless the facts of your case closely match those of another Supreme Court case in which the Justices held the officer’s action unreasonable and therefore unconstitutional.