Supreme Court Backs Law Enforcement in Pair of Civil Rights Lawsuits

President Biden has lobbied unsuccessfully to end 'qualified immunity'

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October 18, 2021

The Supreme Court on Monday reinstated immunity for police officers accused of civil rights violations in two separate cases from California and Oklahoma.

Monday’s cases involved an excessive force claim during a domestic disturbance call and the fatal shooting of an Oklahoma man. Lower courts refused to grant qualified immunity to officers in both cases, decisions Monday’s unsigned rulings summarily reversed.

President Joe Biden unsuccessfully lobbied Congress to pass legislation curtailing qualified immunity, a defense available to police in civil rights cases that is extremely difficult for plaintiffs to surmount. Even as Biden advocates for reform, the government’s reliance on qualified immunity has continued unabated. And the administration has yet to pursue policy changes or tactical legal moves it could enact without Congress.

The California case arose from a 2016 domestic disturbance call. A 12-year-old girl called 911 and told the dispatcher that she was barricaded in a room inside her home with her mother and her 15-year-old sister for fear of her mother’s boyfriend, Ramon Cortesluna. The girl reported that Cortesluna was using a chainsaw to destroy something inside the house and that he was a heavy drinker with "anger issues." All three feared for their safety.

Responding officers ordered Cortesluna to come out of the house when they arrived. Cortesluna did so, but a knife was visible to the officers in his left pocket. Police fired two nonlethal bean bag rounds to immobilize him when he lowered his hands toward the knife. One of the officers, Daniel Rivas-Villegas, then pushed Cortesluna to the ground and pressed his knee into Cortesluna’s back for approximately eight seconds as he handcuffed him. This tactic is called a control hold.

Cortesluna sued the officers for violating his civil rights. A divided three-judge panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied Rivas-Villegas’s claim of qualified immunity, saying that "kneeling on a prone and non-resisting person’s back" could constitute excessive force.

A coalition of California law enforcement groups filed an amicus brief urging the justices to reverse the Ninth Circuit’s decision. They said that the state’s police instruction manual trains officers in proper use of control holds, and that Rivas-Villegas’s actions "conformed perfectly" to those standards.

"The practical ramifications of the Ninth Circuit’s change in direction with the Cortesluna decision are staggering," the brief reads. "Without the ability to use a knee to briefly control an armed suspect for the purposes of handcuffing, officers are left with almost no option to protect their own safety."

The second case involved an Oklahoma man, Dominic Rollice, who was gunned down by police in his ex-wife’s garage in 2016. Rollice was drunk and refused to leave the premises or submit to a pat down. Officers shot and killed him after he picked up a hammer and lifted it above his head, as though he were going to throw it or charge them.

The Tenth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied the officers qualified immunity, suggesting they recklessly created a deadly situation by "cornering" Rollice in the garage.

Monday’s decisions indicate the justices will continue to protect law enforcement against supposedly wrongful denials of qualified immunity. In the last two decades, the justices have regularly reversed lower court decisions that denied immunity to police, sometimes without briefing and argument. A 2016 study showed the High Court processed 18 police immunity cases between 2000 and 2015, favoring police in 16 of them. Criminal justice reformers hoped this practice would abate following the conviction of Derek Chauvin for killing George Floyd.

"These two decisions are not extraordinary applications of qualified immunity, but they do suggest that the Supreme Court is not interested in reconsidering or revising any fundamental aspects of the doctrine," said the Cato Institute’s Jay Schweikert, a lawyer and police immunity researcher.

Both disputes turned on whether prior decisions put officers on notice that control holds or "cornering" suspects violates their civil rights. The Supreme Court’s qualified immunity precedents hold that a plaintiff must prove an officer’s misconduct violated "clearly established" law in order to defeat immunity. The Court said no prior case established that the officers behaved unlawfully in both of Monday’s rulings.

"Both of today’s decisions reinforce the idea that, in general, overcoming qualified immunity still requires a prior case with nearly identical facts," Schweikert said.

The cases are No. 20-1539 Rivas-Villegas v. Cortesluna and No. 20-1668 City of Tahlequah v. Bond.

Published under: Supreme Court