OPINION: This article contains commentary which reflects the author's opinion
The U.S. Supreme Court has delivered two major rulings that are favorable to police officers.
The nation’s highest court overruled two decisions and handed law enforcement big wins in a pair of cases over qualified immunity.
Republicans overwhelmingly support qualified immunity, arguing that if it was taken away officers would be subject to lawsuits for nearly every difficult call they are faced with on the job. This would make it nearly impossible to recruit or retain good officers, they say.
The justices reversed two federal appeals courts that allowed excessive force lawsuits to proceed against officers in separate cases in California and Oklahoma.
Both rulings were decided without oral arguments and with no public dissent among the justices.
“As we have explained, qualified immunity protects ‘all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law,’” the justices wrote.
The Court summarized the two cases:
City of Tahlequah v. Bond (20-1668) (Per Curiam) Officers Girdner and Vick are entitled to qualified immunity in this excessive force action brought under 42 U. S. C. §1983; the Tenth Circuit’s contrary holding is not based on a single precedent finding a Fourth Amendment violation under similar circumstances.
Rivas-Villegas v. Cortesluna (20-1539) (Per Curiam) Officer Rivas-Villegas is entitled to qualified immunity in this excessive force action brought under 42 U. S. C. §1983; the Ninth Circuit’s holding that Circuit precedent “put him on notice that his conduct constituted excessive force” is reversed.
The court wrote:
“The other decisions relied upon by the Court of Appeals are even less relevant. As for Sevier, that decision merely noted in dicta that deliberate or reckless pre-seizure conduct can render a later use of force excessive before dismissing the appeal for lack of jurisdiction.
To state the obvious, a decision where the court did not even have jurisdiction cannot clearly establish substantive constitutional law.
“Regardless, that formulation of the rule is much too general to bear on whether the officers’ particular conduct here violated the Fourth Amendment.
“Suffice it to say, a reasonable officer could miss the connection between that case and this one. Neither the panel majority nor the respondent have identified a single precedent finding a Fourth Amendment violation under similar circumstances,” the court wrote.
The officers were thus entitled to qualified immunity. The petition for certiorari and the motions for leave to file briefs amici curiae are granted, and the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed,” the court added.
In two cases, SCOTUS shields police officers by permitting them to use the qualified immunity doctrine to terminate proceedings against them. https://t.co/nPXcXwjgan
— Joyce Alene (@JoyceWhiteVance) October 18, 2021
SCOTUS granted requests by police officers in separate cases from California and Oklahoma for legal protection under a doctrine called "qualified immunity" from lawsuits accusing them of using excessive force https://t.co/3zuSaPRm36
— Reuters Legal (@ReutersLegal) October 18, 2021
The NAACP was not happy about the ruling.
“These are not the actions of a Court that is likely to end or seriously reform qualified immunity. Reform is going to have to come from elsewhere,” Chris Kemmitt, deputy director of litigation for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, tweeted.
Other liberals were not happy about the pair of rulings:
This language is going to create huge problems for victims of police brutality. We're back to a nearly insurmountable version of qualified immunity that requires perfectly on-point precedent—which almost never exists. Bad day for qualified immunity reform. https://t.co/VJALozETCl pic.twitter.com/pc9vtfoi8m
— Mark Joseph Stern (@mjs_DC) October 18, 2021
The #SCOTUS rulings today on qualified immunity are so deeply disappointing for so many reasons, including that there is simply NO basis for qualified immunity in the text & history of the federal law individuals use to sue when they've been the victims of police brutality. 1/x https://t.co/gO41JjtCsp
— Brianne Gorod (@BrianneGorod) October 18, 2021
By shielding police officers from accountability, qualified immunity encourages more police violence against Black and Brown people. The Supreme Court remains unwilling to correct this injustice. Congress needs to pass my legislation to finally abolish qualified immunity. https://t.co/a0ePZrewjo
— Ed Markey (@SenMarkey) October 18, 2021
We need to fix this and a fix is ready-to-hand: apply traditional, well-known doctrine of ‘respondeat superior’ to police departments, like most every other employer. https://t.co/NR7Zn2acOV
— Sheldon Whitehouse (@SenWhitehouse) October 18, 2021