The Supreme Court on Oct. 18 ruled in favor of police in two cases in which plaintiffs had argued that officers used excessive force, overturning lower court rulings that allowed law enforcement to be sued over civil rights complaints.
In two unsigned (pdf) opinions (pdf), the Supreme Court said that police can be shielded from liability—often known as “qualified immunity”—unless it’s “clear to a reasonable officer” that their actions were illegal. Specifically, the court ruled in two cases in Oklahoma and California that officers are entitled to qualified immunity, which is a legal doctrine that shields police against civil lawsuits while they’re doing their jobs.
The Supreme Court overturned a lower court decision that found that a California officer who had placed his knee on a suspect could face lawsuits. Previously, a lower court decision denied a request from Union City officer Daniel Rivas-Villegas for qualified immunity.
Meanwhile, in the Oklahoma case, a lower court had ruled that two officers—Josh Girdner and Brandon Vick—could be sued because their actions had allegedly escalated the situation before the fatal shooting of a hammer-wielding man in the city of Tahlequah. The Supreme Court also overturned that previous ruling.
On Aug. 12, 2016, Vick and Girdner responded to a woman’s 911 call saying her ex-husband, 49-year-old Dominic Rollice, was intoxicated in the garage and wouldn’t leave. A video released by the Tahlequah police showed the two officers repeatedly asking Rollice to drop a claw hammer he grabbed off the garage wall, before Vick and Girdner shot and killed him, according to The Oklahoman.
Later, the state medical examiner’s office said Rollice had methamphetamine in his system at the time of death. The Wagoner County District Attorney’s Office at the time announced it wouldn’t file charges against the officers and described the shooting as justified.
However, the administrator of Rollice’s estate filed a lawsuit against Vick and Girdner, claiming they used excessive force and violated the slain man’s constitutional rights.
The Eastern District of Oklahoma eventually ruled that the officers had qualified immunity. But last December, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that “a reasonable jury could find facts under which officers Vick and Girdner would not be entitled to qualified immunity.”
In October of last year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco reinstated a lawsuit against Rivas-Villegas who had knelt on the back of Ramon Cortesluna as he lay on the ground and was awaiting arrest for allegedly threatening his girlfriend, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Following the death of George Floyd, which sparked nationwide riots and protests, left-wing Democrats in the House argued that the qualified immunity doctrine needed to be ended or revamped.