U.S. Supreme Court Takes Broad View of Qualified Immunity for Police Officers

       The United States Supreme Court recently held that a police officer who shot a woman holding a knife outside her home was entitled to qualified immunity because his actions did not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights that a reasonable person would have known. Kisela v. Hughes, 584 U.S. ___, 138 S. Ct. 1148 (2018).

       In May 2010, Andrew Kisela and other officers responded to a 911 call that a woman carrying a knife was acting erratically. Officers spotted Sharon Chadwick in the driveway of a nearby house. Then, Amy Hughes, matching the 911 description of the woman acting erratically, emerged from the house carrying a large knife. Hughes stopped near Chadwick, at which time the officers drew their guns. After officers told Hughes to drop the knife twice, Kisela shot Hughes four times. Less than one minute passed from the time the officers first saw Chadwick to when Kisela shot Hughes.

       Hughes sued Kisela under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging Kisela used excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment, which the Court did not decide. Instead, it held Kisela was entitled to qualified immunity, even if a Fourth Amendment violation did occur.

       The Court explained that, “although existing case law does not have to be directly on point…existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question at issue beyond debate” to deny a police officer qualified immunity. Excessive force, particularly, “is an area of the law in which the result depends very much on the facts of each case, and thus police officers are entitled to qualified immunity unless existing precedent squarely governs the specific facts at issue.” Thus, an officer does not violate a clearly established right unless “the right’s contours were sufficiently definite that any reasonable official in the defendant’s shoes would have understood that he was violating it.”  The Court held the facts in Kisela were “far from an obvious case in which any competent officer would have known that shooting Hughes to protect Chadwick would violate the Fourth Amendment.”

       This decision is in line with other recent Supreme Court decision on excessive use of force by police officers.  Claimants asserting excessive use of force claims against police officers must overcome strong deference in favor of the police officers in order to prevail on their claims.