The Supreme Court ruled on Monday, with no dissenting opinions from justices, that police officers in two qualified immunity cases should be shielded from lawsuits claiming they used excessive force.
Both opinions that were issued by the high court were unsigned and effectively reversed lower court decisions that the officers could be sued for their actions. The two cases involved police officers who had responded to domestic disputes where women or children were allegedly being threatened by men.
Qualified immunity for police officers has been heatedly debated. It prevents government officials from being sued for ostensibly violating citizens’ rights while reasonably doing their jobs unless those rights are “clearly established in the law.”
The doctrine has been primarily opposed by Democrats and Libertarians who contend that it results in police officers who overstep their authority being unjustly protected.
Conservatives have overwhelmingly supported qualified immunity. They point out that if the protection is removed from officers, it will prevent them from doing their jobs and open them up to lawsuits and imprisonment for doing their duty. It would make it nearly impossible for officers to stay on the job or to recruit new ones.
Sens. Tim Scott (R-SC) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) faced off over the contentious issue earlier in the year but were never able to come to a consensus.
The doctrine has been questioned by a number of Supreme Court justices including constitutional originalist Justice Clarence Thomas. Thomas has noted that he has “strong doubts” about it constitutionally. But none dissented on this ruling, Reuters reported.
In the case of Rivas-Villegas v. Cortesluna, the Supreme Court reversed a decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in regards to granting qualified immunity to Union City, California, police officer Daniel Rivas-Villegas.
The officer was called to a scene where a man named Ramon Cortesluna was allegedly drunk and was threatening his girlfriend and her two teenage daughters with a chainsaw. Multiple officers also arrived on the scene and ordered the man to come out of the house and drop his weapon.
The cops observed that Cortesluna had a knife in his pocket and ordered him to keep his hands up and away from his knife. He reportedly did not comply and was shot by an unnamed officer with two bean bag rounds.
At that point, Rivas-Villegas approached the suspect who was now on the ground. He reportedly put his left knee on Cortesluna’s back and then forced his hands behind his back as another officer disarmed and handcuffed him.
The suspect sued Rovas-Villegas for excessive force because he knelt on his back. He cited a previous case where an officer was found to have violated a suspect’s rights by doing so. The justices, however, contended that the situation that Rivas-Villegas responded to was “more volatile” than the other case and therefore was “materially distinguishable.” In other words, the officer was protected by qualified immunity.
“In LaLonde [the precedent cited by Cortesluna], 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 justices wrote in their opinion.
In the second case that was decided on Monday, City of Tahlequah, Oklahoma, et al. v. Austin P. Bond, the justices reversed a decision by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals which refused to give qualified immunity to officers Josh Girdner and Brandon Vick in the fatal shooting of Dominic Rollice.
Rollice’s ex-wife reportedly called the police in 2016 claiming that he was drunk and would not leave her garage. She told officers that if they didn’t come right away, “it’s going to get ugly real quick.”
Vick, Girdner, and other officers arrived at the scene and started talking with Rollice. He reportedly then grabbed a hammer and appeared to be preparing to throw it at them or charge the officers brandishing it as a weapon. Vick and Girdner shot and killed Rollice in response to the perceived threat. The state medical examiner later found methamphetamine in Rollice’s body.
Bond, who is the administrator of Rollice’s estate, sued and a Tenth Circuit panel ruled that the officers could not avoid a lawsuit by invoking qualified immunity.
The Supreme Court disagreed with that ruling, stating that “the officers plainly did not violate any clearly established law.”
“As we have explained, qualified immunity protects ‘all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law,’” the justices wrote in their decision. “That was not the case here,” the justices contended, “so the officers are protected by qualified immunity.”
Many on social media support qualified immunity for police officers:
2/2 By the time the cops got there he had a knife in his pocket and the cop just put his knee on the guy’s back for 8 seconds. The chainsaw guy is claiming emotional and physical pain. What about the woman and kid he was threatening with the chainsaw? These were both justified.
— Melinda (@melinda6827) October 18, 2021
Police are being shot everyday now. Have you noticed?
— Connie (@Connie84993632) October 18, 2021
— Dannak (@kornegay_danna) October 18, 2021
Many leftists are against it:
Yes qualified immunity puts police officers above the law and citizens below it. It has to end. https://t.co/KgKpg4y8CG
— Alene LaRosa (@AMJLaRosa) October 18, 2021
Qualified immunity is one of those topics which units left & right in opposition.
HEY CONGRESSIONAL DEMOCRATS: Introduce a QI bill that fixes this mess & make the GOP vote on it.
(Sorry for yelling.) https://t.co/DibQNGF0yD
— David DiSabatino (@DavidDiSab) October 18, 2021
Our communities helped put Biden in power to STOP THE BLEEDING pouring from the deadliest police culture in the modern world.
Band-aid solutions won’t cut it. I’m running for Texas Attorney General to end qualified immunity in Texas and nationally.
— Lee Merritt (@MerrittForTexas) October 10, 2021
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