The US Supreme Court issued an Opinion April 2, 2018 (Kisela v. Hughes) that a Tucson Police officer was justified in shooting a woman who was holding a knife near her roommate after the woman was reported exhibiting “erratic” behavior. Highlighting the need for law enforcement officers to make split-second judgments, the Court declined to engage in second-guessing the officer on the scene and reversed the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. For local law enforcement agencies, this is a strong case supporting officers that can help defend them in civil litigation.
Facts: A 9-1-1 caller reports a woman (“Hughes”) with a knife cutting a tree and acting erratically. Three Tucson police officers arrive on the scene and see a woman (“Chadwick”) in the driveway. Then, they see Hughes come out of the house carrying a large knife walking towards Chadwick and stop about six feet from her. All three officers draw their service weapons and gave commands to Hughes to “Drop the knife!” While arguably appearing calm, Hughes did not drop the knife, which resulted in one of the officers believing Hughes to be a threat to Chadwick. The officers were separated by a chain-link fence from the two women and one officer shot Hughes to eliminate the threat to Chadwick’s safety.
Case Procedure: Hughes sued the officer and made claims under 42 USC 1983. The US District Court granted summary judgment to the officer on qualified immunity holding the officer had not violated a “clearly established” constitutional right of Hughes. But, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding the right was clearly defined and ordering the case to go to trial. The Supreme Court in a per curiam opinion held the 9th Circuit clearly was wrong in its analysis and that it should have held for the officer.
Supreme Court Analysis of Qualified Immunity: First, it has been the law since at least 1985 that officers can lawfully use deadly force if they have probable cause to believe a suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm to the officer or others. The “reasonableness” of a shooting is judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with “20/20 hindsight.” An officer is entitled to qualified immunity for such claims unless the right is clearly established and that right must be established “beyond debate.” The 9th Circuit relied on cases clearly distinguishable from the facts in the present case and it was noted the 9th Circuit had been told before “not to define clearly established at a high level of generality.”
The officer’s actions are viewed on what he objectively knew – meaning what would someone know just arriving on the scene. He knew a 9-1-1 caller reported Hughes as having a knife and acting erratically. He knew Hughes approached Chadwick with the knife and got within six feet of her. He knew the officers gave Hughes multiple commands to drop the knife, but she did not. He knew Chadwick was exposed to serious bodily injury and thus, deadly force was permitted. He did not know Chadwick and Hughes were roommates, that they were having a dispute over $20 or that Hughes had a tendency to act that way to get attention. That is “subjective” evidence and it is not considered in the qualified immunity analysis as that is the 20/20 hindsight the Court said is impermissible.
Meaning of the Ruling?: The Supreme Court has, again, held qualified immunity is a keystone of adjudicating claims against law enforcement. It emphasized cases clearly establishing a constitutional right must be fairly specific in their facts and specifically dictate what actions law enforcement may take in those situations. And, it made it clear that officers are permitted to use deadly force to protect third-parties from what they believe are threats to the safety of such parties.
Follow Up: I have represented law enforcement agencies and local government for more than 30 years. Our team has experience with defending law enforcement officers, whether claims arise from the field or in a detention setting. Feel free to contact me to discuss representation of a law enforcement agency or its officers. Nick Ellis 919-783-2907 or firstname.lastname@example.org.