Justices Toss Excessive Force Claims Against Campus Cop

(CN) – Summarily reversing a Ninth Circuit decision, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that an Arizona campus policeman who shot a mentally ill woman four times in her driveway is entitled to qualified immunity.

In 2011, Amy Hughes sued Andrew Kisela, then a corporal with the University of Arizona Police Department.

According to court records, Kisela was called out on a welfare check after Hughes was reportedly stabbing a tree with a knife on her property near the University of Arizona campus. When she did not comply with requests from Kisela and other officers to drop the knife, he fired four shots at her through a chain-link fence, hitting her.

U.S. Senior District Judge Frank Zapata found Kisela did not use excessive force against Hughes during the incident, and had immunity against her claims. The Pima County Attorney’s Office also found Kisela acted reasonably, since Hughes was standing with the knife in her hand near her friend, another woman.

But the Ninth Circuit reversed the lower court in 2016, finding that the evidence presented did not support Kisela’s perception that Hughes was an “immediate threat.” The court also found that a jury could determine Kisela should have recognized Hughes was exhibiting signs of mental illness, and he should not be granted immunity for his actions.

The San Francisco-based appeals court then rejected Kisela’s request for a rehearing en banc, but the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take up the case.

On Monday, the justices issued an unsigned opinion summarily reversing the Ninth Circuit’s denial of qualified immunity for Kisela’s actions.

The nation’s high court found Kisela was entitled to immunity from Hughes’ claims because she was armed with a large knife, was within striking distance of her friend, ignored officers’ orders to drop the knife, and the events unfolded in less than a minute.

“The Court need not, and does not, decide whether Kisela violated the Fourth Amendment when he used deadly force against Hughes,” the ruling states. “For even assuming a Fourth Amendment violation occurred—a proposition that is not at all evident—on these facts Kisela was at least entitled to qualified immunity.”

But Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissented from the majority, noting that Kisela did not give Hughes a warning that he was about to open fire.

“Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Hughes, as the Court must at summary judgment, a jury could find that Kisela violated Hughes’ clearly established Fourth Amendment rights by needlessly resorting to lethal force,” Sotomayor wrote. “In holding otherwise, the Court misapprehends the facts and misapplies the law, effectively treating qualified immunity as an absolute shield. I therefore respectfully dissent.”

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