The United States Supreme Court signaled on Monday that it will not back down from its willingness to grant a legal protection known as “qualified immunity” to police officers accused of using excessive force in lawsuits, ruling in favor of officers in separate cases from California and Oklahoma. The justices overturned a lower court’s decision to allow a trial in a lawsuit against officers Josh Girdner and Brandon Vick in connection with the fatal shooting of a hammer-wielding man in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in 2016.
They also reversed a lower court’s decision to deny police officer Daniel Rivas-Villegas’ request for qualified immunity in a lawsuit accusing him of using excessive force while handcuffing a suspect in Union City, California.
The brief rulings were unsigned, and no public dissents were expressed by the justices in the cases, which were both decided without oral arguments.
In certain circumstances, the qualified immunity defense shields police and other government officials from civil litigation, allowing lawsuits only when an individual’s “clearly established” statutory or constitutional rights have been violated.
The rulings indicated that the justices believe lower courts continue to deny qualified immunity in police excessive force cases far too frequently, despite having previously chastised appeals courts on the issue in recent years. “These are not the actions of a court that is likely to end or seriously reform qualified immunity,” Chris Kemmitt, a civil rights lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, tweeted.
A 2020 investigation revealed how, with the Supreme Court’s ongoing refinements, qualified immunity has made it easier for police officers to kill or injure civilians with impunity.
In the Oklahoma case, officers responded to a complaint from the slain man’s former wife, Dominic Rollice, that he was inebriated and in her garage. According to court documents, officers told Rollice they were not there to arrest him, but rather to give him a “ride out of there,” but he refused. The officers then advanced on Rollice, prompting him to back up and grab a hammer that he held above his head and refused to drop, according to a lower court.
When Rollice appeared to raise the hammer even higher, Girdner and Vick opened fire, killing him. A third officer decided to “go less lethal” in the situation, putting his firearm in his holster and instead using his stun gun.
Rollice’s estate filed a lawsuit against Girdner and Vick, accusing them of using excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. According to the police, they used force because they were afraid Rollice would charge at them or throw the hammer.
In 2020, the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied the officers qualified immunity, concluding that they had unjustifiably escalated the situation.
On Monday, the Supreme Court declined to rule on “whether recklessly creating a situation that requires lethal force can itself violate the Fourth Amendment,” instead stating that no prior case had “clearly established” that the officers’ actions were illegal.
For the same reason, the justices ruled in favor of Rivas-Villegas in the California case. In that case, a man named Ramon Cortesluna was arrested at his home. Rivas-Villegas pushed Cortesluna down with his foot, then pressed his knee into the man’s back while another officer handcuffed him.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled last year that Cortesluna’s excessive force claim could proceed to trial, noting that the suspect was prone and not resisting arrest.
As part of legislation to reform police practices, Congressional Democrats have sought to limit qualified immunity. The House of Representatives passed a Democratic-backed bill that would end qualified immunity for law enforcement, but Senate talks on police reform between Democrats and Republicans broke down last month.