Washington, DC – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday release two unsigned opinions that reversed lower court rulings that had denied police officers qualified immunity.
The justices granted requests for legal protection from police officers in Oklahoma and California who had been accused of using excessive force, Reuters reported.
Lower courts had ruled that the officers were not protected from liability by qualified immunity.
Both of the brief rulings by the Supreme Court were unsigned, with no recorded dissents, FOX News reported.
On Oct. 18, the justices overturned a decision by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals which denied Tahlequah Police Officers Josh Girdner and Brandon Vick qualified immunity in the fatal shooting of a hammer-wielding domestic violence suspect in Oklahoma, FOX News reported.
The justices’ decision said the incident occurred after Rollice’s ex-wife had called the police in 2016 and said he was drunk and wouldn’t leave her garage.
She warned that if police did not come, “it’s going to get ugly real quick,” according to the opinion.
Officers Vick and Girdner responded to the scene with other officers and engaged Rollice in conversation.
The court’s opinion said that Rollice grabbed a hammer and acted as though he was about to throw it at the officers or charge them with it, FOX News reported.
That’s when he was fatally shot by Officers Girdner and Vick.
The administrator for Rollice’s estate sued and the lower court said the officers could not avoid liability by invoking qualified immunity, FOX News reported.
But the Supreme Court disagreed with the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and said “the officers plainly did not violate any clearly established law.”
“As we have explained, qualified immunity protects ‘all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law,’” the justices wrote.
The justices said that wasn’t the case in this incident so the officers were protected by qualified immunity, FOX News reported.
The Supreme Court justices also reversed a decision by the 9th Circuit Court of appeals who refused to grant immunity to Union City Police Officer Daniel Rivas-Villegas in a lawsuit that accused him of using excessive force while handcuffing a suspect, Reuters reported.
The justices’ opinion said Officer Rivas-Villegas responded to a domestic incident where a man was allegedly drunk and threatening his girlfriend and her two 12- and 15-year-old daughters with a chainsaw, FOX News reported.
Officers ordered the suspect to exit the house and drop his weapon, but he still had a knife in his pocket, according to the unsigned opinion.
Court documents showed that Ramon Cortesluna ignored officers’ commands to keep his hands up and away from the knife and so he was shot with two bean bag rounds, FOX News reported.
That’s when Officer Rivas-Villegas put his left knee on Cortesluna’s back and forced his hands behind his back while a fellow officer disarmed and handcuffed him, according to the opinion.
The justices’ opinion said that Cortesluna sued Officer Rivas-Villegas for excessive use of force, specifically over the fact the officer kneeled on his back, and cited a prior case where an officer had violated a person’s rights by kneeling on his back.
But the justices aid the situation that Officer Rivas-Villegas responded to was “more volatile” than the other case and therefore was “materially distinguishable,” FOX News reported.
That meant that Officer Rivas-Villegas was protected by qualified immunity.
“In LaLonde [the precedent cited by Cortesluna], 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,” the justices wrote in the Oct. 18 opinion.
Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that shields police officers from liability for civil damages for actions taken while acting in the capacity of a law enforcement officers, as long as the officer didn’t violate a person’s established rights.
If an officer violates a person’s legally-established rights, they are not eligible to claim qualified immunity.
Qualified immunity does not offer any protection from criminal charges but was established by the U.S. Supreme Court to curb gratuitous litigation against police officers.
On a practical level, it allows law enforcement officers to make arrests and split-second decisions regarding use of force without fear of constantly having to defend themselves personally from damages, as long as their actions were legal at the time.
Even if officers are shielded under qualified immunity, people are still able to sue the officer’s law enforcement agency for damages.