The question of what is considered excessive police force has been raised in myriad cases around the country in recent years. What is the legal backing that gets a police officer off the hook for injuring—or even killing—a civilian?
In today’s post, we examine this protection—known as “qualified immunity” — and how a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling has broadened the freedom of law enforcement officials to act within its scope.
What is qualified immunity?
Qualified immunity is a legal protection that applies to local and federal government employees—including law enforcement officials. Because work in law enforcement can be dangerous—and sometimes violent—qualified immunity protects officers from litigation if, while acting reasonably within the parameters of their job, someone gets injured.
However, qualified immunity can create an ethical gray area, because it allows law enforcement to violate a civilian’s constitutional rights if the officer is deemed to be acting with good intentions and without deliberately violating clearly established law. Such a determination can be open to interpretation.
Supreme Court interpretation
The U.S. Supreme Court recently made an important ruling in the case of Kisela v. Hughes, No. 17-467. In this case, the police came to the home of Amy Hughes, after they had received a report that she had been stabbing at a tree with a knife. When the police arrived, Ms. Hughes’ roommate was outside the house and did not appear alarmed. Ms. Hughes then calmly came out of the house, holding a kitchen knife at her side—which was directed at no one. One of the officers—Andrew Kisela — then shot her four times. Ms. Hughes reportedly screamed, “why’d you shoot me?” She survived the incident and filed a lawsuit against the officer for the use of excessive force.
Ms. Kisela had not be acting aggressively. Her roommate did not appear threatened. None of the other officers on the scene judged the situation to warrant deadly force.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision on the case—ruling in favor of Officer Kisela. It found that the officer’s force did not qualify as unconstitutionally excessive.
Justice Sotomayor—one of the two justices to dissent the ruling—wrote in her opinion this the court’s decision adds to a worrying trend of “unflinching willingness” to protect law enforcement in cases of excessive force. She added that the ruling turns qualified immunity into an “absolute shield for law enforcement officers.”
In light of the seemingly daily stories of police brutality to flood the news recently, this ruling is particularly concerning for victims seeking justice. If you believe your constitutional rights have been violated, now more than ever it’s important to have an attorney experienced in civil rights litigation to advocate on your behalf.