SCOTUS upholds qualified immunity for officers accused of using excessive force

Amid an ongoing push for criminal justice reform in the wake of George Floyd’s death last year while in police custody, a common target has been qualified immunity, which generally shields cops from civil liability when facing allegations of wrongdoing while performing official duties.

The U.S. Supreme Court this week weighed in on the subject with two rulings that sided with police officers accused of using excessive force. 

Officer uses knee to restrain suspect

As NPR explained, the decisions were seen by some as controversial, particularly since one case involved an officer using his knee on a suspect’s back as a form of restraint — similar to the manner in which Floyd was restrained prior to his death in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

In this case, however, the knee restraint was used for about eight seconds as compared to more than eight minutes in the Floyd case.

The Union City, California officer reportedly responded to a 911 call alleging that a suspect had terrorized his family with a chainsaw.

Officer Daniel Rivas-Villegas arrived on the scene and encountered Ramon Cortesluna, who appeared to reach for a knife in his pocket upon being ordered to keep his hands up.

Officers on the scene fired non-lethal beanbag rounds and Rivas-Villegas briefly applied his knee to the suspect’s back while another officer grabbed the knife and put Cortesluna in handcuffs.

Cops open fire on hammer-wielding suspect

Cortesluna subsequently filed a lawsuit claiming that the officer used excessive force. A district court rejected that claim, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision, citing precedent from a prior case that also included officers using a knee restraint.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court reversed the appeals court and reinstated qualified immunity for Rivas-Villegas, noting that the case involved different circumstances than the previous case cited as legal precedent.

The second case involves three officers in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, who responded to a 911 call from a woman complaining that her abusive ex-husband refused to leave the property.

When cops arrived and confronted Dominic Rollice in the home’s garage, he allegedly raised a hammer above his head while approaching them, prompting two officers to open fire and kill the suspect. His estate went on to file an excessive force lawsuit.

Once again, the Supreme Court reversed an appeals court ruling by determining that the officers involved were entitled to qualified immunity. Although reforming qualified immunity has received some support from across the court’s ideological spectrum, notably from Justices Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor, the two recent decisions did not include any dissenting opinions.

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