The U.S. Supreme Court sided with police on the issue of qualified immunity recently by overturning the decisions of two lower courts to deny officers immunity from civil lawsuits.
The cases involved a lower court ruling that found an officer in California could be sued for placing his knee on a prone suspect, as well as a ruling in Oklahoma that determined that two police officers involved in a fatal shooting were liable due to actions that escalated the potential for violence.
The Supreme Court, which has avoided making rulings on the issue of qualified immunity in several instances earlier this year, took a clear side by reversing the decisions.
The S.C.’s rulings, according to unsigned opinions, maintained officers’ qualified immunity, arguing that police are to be protected from liability unless “it is clear to a reasonable officer” that their actions are unlawful.
In the Oklahoma case, Dominic Rollice, 49, was shot in his garage after refusing to put down a hammer during a domestic call. His estate sued the officers, claiming that their conduct violated his civil rights.
A district court then ruled that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity – a ruling that was subsequently overturned by the Denver-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, which ruled that courts can consider police conduct prior to a fatal encounter as a civil rights violation if that conduct causally led to the police’s use of deadly force.
Rollice’s attorneys then appealed to the Supreme Court on the basis of this ruling, seeking a nationwide standard.
The victim’s attorneys argued that the officers’ actions unnecessarily escalated the situation.
“The officers’ conduct – aggressively moving in on an impaired person and backing him into a garage full of tools, immediately inflaming the situation and causing him to pick up a hammer – was indeed reckless behavior,” they told the court.
The officers’ lawyers rebutted that they attempted to deescalate the situation by repeatedly telling Rollice to put down the hammer. They then argued that the Appeals Court’s overruling leaves police in an “untenable” position where they “face liability and being branded unconstitutional actors even if they act reasonably in self-defense.”
“Officers deserve better than to be put in that no-win position,” the lawyers asserted.
The doctrine of qualified immunity was established by the Supreme Court in the 1982 case Harlow v. Fitzgerald.