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High court sides with police in use-of-force cases

In a pair of unsigned opinions, the Supreme Court overturned the denial of qualified immunity for police officers in excessive force cases out of California and Oklahoma.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Enforcing qualified immunity rights for police officers, the Supreme Court on Monday summarily reversed two lower court orders that allowed excessive force cases against officers to move forward.

One case from Union City, California, involves an officer pressing his knee against an arrestee's back — a tactic that has been highly criticized following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

Daniel Rivas-Villegas was responding to a 911 report of Ramon Corteslun threatening his girlfriend and two children. When officers commanded Cortesluna to come out of the house, they noticed he had a knife in his pocket. Rivas-Villegas moved to handcuff and disarm Cortesluna, and in the process he positioned his knee on the left side of Cortesluna’s back even though he was not resisting arrest. 

Cortesluna sued Rivas-Villegas, alleging excessive use of force. The officer claimed he was entitled to qualified immunity and the district court agreed, granting him summary judgment. But the Ninth Circuit then reversed the lower court’s decision because “existing precedent put [Rivas-Villegas] on notice that his conduct constituted excessive force.”

The Supreme Court agreed with a dissenting judge from the Ninth Circuit panel, U.S. Circuit Judge Daniel P. Collins, a Donald Trump appointee who found that the precedent relied on by the district court was insufficient to find that Rivas-Villegas used excessive force.

In an unsigned opinion, the justices found that even if the precedent in the case LaLonde v. Riverside did apply to Rivas-Villegas’ case, he would not have been given fair notice and therefore was entitled to qualified immunity. 

“On the facts of this case, neither LaLonde nor any decision of this Court is sufficiently similar. For that reason, we grant Rivas-Villegas’ petition for certiorari and reverse the Ninth Circuit’s determination that Rivas-Villegas is not entitled to qualified immunity,” the opinion states.

The second case involves the death of Dominic Rollice after police shot him during an altercation at his ex-wife’s house in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

Police were called after Rollice’s ex-wife claimed he was intoxicated and would not leave her home. Three officers — Josh Girdner, Chase Reed, and Brandon Vick — responded to the call and tried to escort Rollice out of the garage. While the officers tried to talk him out, Rollice grabbed a hammer and appeared as if he was going to throw it at Girdner. In response, Girdner and Vick fired their weapons at Rollice, killing him. 

Rollice's estate filed a lawsuit against Girdner and Vick alleging excessive force, to which the officers responded with requests for summary judgment on merits and qualified immunity. The district court sided with the officers, finding their use of force was reasonable, and even if it wasn't, "qualified immunity prevented the case from going further.” The decision was reversed by the 10th Circuit.

The appellate court panel ruled that relevant precedent said if an officer created a situation requiring deadly force, the officer could be held liable for a shooting that was itself reasonable. The court found that Girdner took a step towards Rollice and that the other officers cornered him, “recklessly” creating a situation that led to Rollice’s death. In light of the situation created by officers, the 10th Circuit found deadly force was excessive and the officers’ conduct was unlawful. 

The Supreme Court reversed that decision, finding “the officers plainly did not violate any clearly established law.”

The summary decision said the precedent cited by the appeals court did not “come close” to supporting a finding that the officers’ conduct was unlawful. Consequently, the justices held the officers were entitled to qualified immunity. 

There were no dissents to either unsigned Supreme Court decision.

Follow @KelseyReichmann
Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Government, National

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