The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the denial of qualified immunity in a pair of cases alleging excessive force, emphasizing that a constitutional violation must be “clearly established” before officers can be sued.
In one case, the justices said Union City, California officer Daniel Rivas-Villegas didn’t have to face a civil rights suit after “briefly” placing his knee on Ramon Cortesluna’s back while the officer removed a knife from his pocket.
The justices similarly said Tahlequah, Oklahoma officers couldn’t be sued for killing Dominic Rollice, who charged at the officers while preparing to swing a hammer.
In both cases, the justices—without any noted dissent—said previous case law hadn’t provided the officers with clear guidance that their conduct violated the constitution.
“It is not enough that a rule be suggested by then-existing precedent,” the court said in an unsigned opinion. Instead, the “the rule’s contours must be so well defined that it is clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted.”
The court distinguished the cases on which the lower courts had relied in denying the officers qualified immunity, noting that in each case the officers faced a potentially violent situation.
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In the Rivas-Villegas case, for example, the court chided the lower court for relying on a previous case where the “officers were responding to a mere noise complaint, whereas here they were responding to a serious alleged incident of domestic violence possibly involving a chainsaw.”
The doctrine of qualified immunity has come under increased scrutiny following the 2020 murder of George Floyd by officer Derek Chauvin and other acts of excessive force by police.