High Court Thrashes 9th Circuit on Excessive-Force Case

WASHINGTON (CN) – Calling out the Ninth Circuit’s “puzzling” reversal, the U.S. Supreme Court demanded new proceedings Monday as to the police tackling of a man at the scene of a reported incident of domestic violence. 

The case stems from an apartment in Escondido, California, where police responded twice in as many months to reports of domestic violence.

After the first call in April 2013, police arrested the husband of one of the women who lived there. Some weeks later, they arrested her father, Marty Emmons, which eventually spurred excessive force claims against Officers Robert Craig and Kevin Toth.

Though a federal judge sided with the officers at summary judgment, the Ninth Circuit remanded Emmons’ claims against the pair for trial.

Without even hearing oral arguments, the Supreme Court laid out a number of errors in the Ninth Circuit’s holding.

“The court’s unexplained reinstatement of the excessive force claim against Sergeant Toth was erroneous — and quite puzzling in light of the District Court’s conclusion that ‘only defendant Craig was involved in the excessive force claim’ and that Emmons ‘fail[ed] to identify contrary evidence,’” the unsigned 5-page opinion states.

“As to Officer Craig, the Ninth Circuit also erred,” it continues. “As we have explained many times: ‘Qualified immunity attaches when an official’s conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.’”

In the 2013 altercation, Emmons attempted to brush past officers after refusing to let them enter the Escondido apartment to conduct a welfare check.

Craig took Emmons to the ground and handcuffed him, but the District Court noted in its ruling that officers were clueless at the time as to whether Emmons “was armed or dangerous, or whether he had injured any individuals inside the apartment.”

In reversing meanwhile the Ninth Circuit found that “the right to be free of excessive force was clearly established at the time of the events in question.” Vacating this determination Monday, the Supreme Court called it incumbent on the Ninth Circuit to determine “whether clearly established law prohibited the officers from stopping and taking down a man in these circumstances.”

The justices said the the Ninth Circuit’s reversal shirked this responsibility, opting instead to use a level of generality in defining the clearly established right.

“The Court of Appeals made no effort to explain how that case law prohibited Officer Craig’s actions in this case,” the ruling states.

Escondido City Attorney Michael McGuinness emphasized in a phone interview Monday that footage of the altercation captured by officers’ body cameras shows that no harm was done to Emmons in handcuffing him.

“[Emmons] is obviously not hurt, he’s not complaining of anything,’ McGuinness said. “The officers were telling him, ‘we didn’t know you were coming out, who you were or what was happening.’”

On remand, the court must conduct the analysis required by our precedents.

“The maximum he could ever be accused of was putting his hand on Emmons’ shoulder very briefly, just seconds long, that’s distinction between he and Craig,” McGuinness said of Craig. “But because Craig was the one who took him to the ground, handcuffed him and stood him up, there was more to that analysis.”

McGuinness applauded the court meanwhile for clearing the other officer.

“With respect to Sergeant Toth, I am pleased the court saw that the case had no merit,” McGuinness said Monday. “I’m disappointed the court didn’t find the same to be true for Officer Craig. The Ninth Circuit didn’t do what it’s supposed to do and the record shows that neither the plaintiff nor the Court of Appeals ever put anything forward which showed that qualified immunity should be rejected.”

McGuiness also called it encouraging that the Supreme Court opted to weigh in on what was admittedly “not a big case.”

“It’s nice to see the Supreme Court is interested in making sure that the [Ninth Circuit] is doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” he said.

Emmons’ attorney Gerald Singleton has not returned a request for comment. 

Today at the Supreme Court marked the first time Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s 25 years at the court that she did not attend oral arguments.

Ginsburg is recovering from surgery she underwent in December to remove two cancerous nodules from her lungs.

Chief Justice John Roberts announced Ginsburg’s absence from the bench this morning, assuring onlookers that Ginsburg would “participate in the consideration and decision of the cases on the basis of the briefs and the transcripts of oral arguments.”

Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg confirmed Monday that the 85-year-old justice would work from home.

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