Supreme Court Reinstates Qualified Immunity Claims By Police Officers

In two unanimous per curiam opinions today, the U.S. Supreme Court indicated that qualified immunity for police officers was alive and well despite recent attacks on its propriety. In Rivas-Villegas v. Cortesluna, the Court reversed a ruling by the Ninth Circuit that denied qualified immunity to an officer responding to a violent domestic dispute who put his knee on an arrestee’s back for eight seconds while another officer removed a knife from the arrestee’s pocket.

The Ninth Circuit reasoned that the conduct was prohibited under LaLonde v. County of Riverside, 204 F.3d 947 (9th Cir. 2000), where an officer deliberately dug his knee into an unarmed arrestee’s back while responding to a noise complaint. The Court stressed that LaLonde was readily distinguishable, and did not put the officer in Rivas-Villegas on notice that his brief use of his knee to restrain a prone arrestee was excessive force, thus entitling him to qualified immunity.

A similar result was reached in City of Tahlequah, OK v. Bond, where two officers shot and killed a man who refused to obey their orders, armed himself with a hammer, and began approaching the officers with the hammer raised. The Tenth Circuit denied the officers qualified immunity because it decided the officers potentially created the situation by cornering the man in his garage. The Court held that none of the cases relied on by the Tenth Circuit “comes close to establishing that the officers’ conduct was unlawful[,]” finding none to be relevant to the factual situation presented, and thus granted the officers qualified immunity.

A link to the opinion in Rivas-Villegas is here:

A link to the opinion in City of Tahlequah is here: