Recent SCOTUS Qualified Immunity Rulings

By:

  • Lisa Soronen
October 28, 2021

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the use of force by police officers violates the Fourth Amendment when it is “excessive.” Police officers receive qualified immunity if it isn’t clearly established that their use of force was excessive. In two unauthored opinions, decided without oral argument the Supreme Court granted police officers qualified immunity where the lower courts refused to.  

In Rivas-Villegas v. Cortesluna the Court reversed the Ninth Circuit’s denial of qualified immunity to Officer Rivas-Villegas. While Officer Rivas-Villegas was in the process of removing a knife from Ramon Cortesluna’s pocket, he placed his knee on Cortesluna’s back, which Cortesluna claimed was excessive force.

A girl told 911 she, her sister, and her mother had shut themselves into a room because their mother’s boyfriend, Cortesluna, was trying to hurt them and had a chainsaw. Officers ordered Cortesluna to leave the house. They noticed he had a knife sticking out from the front left pocket of his pants. Officers told Cortesluna to put his hands up. When he put his hands down, they shot him twice with a beanbag shotgun. Cortesluna then raised his hands and got down as instructed.

Officer Rivas-Villegas placed his left knee on the left side of Cortesluna’s back, near where Cortesluna had the knife in his pocket, and raised both of Cortesluna’s arms up behind his back. Another officer removed the knife and handcuffed Cortesluna. Rivas-Villegas had his knee on Cortesluna’s back for no more than eight seconds.

The Ninth Circuit concluded that circuit precedent, LaLonde v. County of Riverside, indicated that leaning with a knee on a suspect who is lying face-down on the ground and isn’t resisting is excessive force. The Supreme Court disagreed that LaLonde clearly established that Officer Rivas-Villegas couldn’t briefly place his knee on the left side of Cortesluna’s back. 

The Supreme Court reasoned LaLonde is “materially distinguishable and thus does not govern the facts of this case.” “In LaLonde, 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. In addition, LaLonde was unarmed. Cortesluna, in contrast, had a knife protruding from his left pocket for which he had just previously appeared to reach. Further, in this case, video evidence shows, and Cortesluna does not dispute, that Rivas-Villegas placed his knee on Cortesluna for no more than eight seconds and only on the side of his back near the knife that officers were in the process of retrieving. LaLonde, in contrast, testified that the officer deliberately dug his knee into his back when he had no weapon and had made no threat when approached by police.”

In City of Tahlequah v. Bond, the Supreme Court held that two officers who shot Dominic Rollice after he raised a hammer “higher back behind his head and took a stance as if he was about to throw the hammer or charge at the officers” were entitled to qualified immunity.

Dominic Rollice’s ex-wife told 911 that Rollice was in her garage, intoxicated, and would not leave. While the officers were talking to Rollice he grabbed a hammer and faced them. He grasped the handle of the hammer with both hands, as if preparing to swing a baseball bat, and pulled it up to shoulder level. The officers yelled to him to drop it. Instead, he came out from behind a piece of furniture so that he had an unobstructed path to one of the officers. He then raised the hammer higher back behind his head and took a stance as if he was about to throw it or charge at the officers. Two officers fired their weapons and killed him.

The Tenth Circuit concluded that a few circuit court cases—Allen v. Muskogee in particular—clearly established that the officers’ use of force was excessive.

The Supreme Court disagreed. “[T]he facts of Allen are dramatically different from the facts here. The officers in Allen responded to a potential suicide call by sprinting toward a parked car, screaming at the suspect, and attempting to physically wrest a gun from his hands. Officers Girdner and Vick, by contrast, engaged in a conversation with Rollice, followed him into a garage at a distance of 6 to 10 feet, and did not yell until after he picked up a hammer.”

About the Author

Lisa Soronen

About the Author

Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State & Local Legal Center.