In two unsigned decisions without noted dissents, the Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of police officers accused of using excessive force, signaling the court’s continued support of the doctrine of qualified immunity, reports the New York Times. The doctrine requires plaintiffs to not only show that the official accused of misconduct violated a constitutional right, but also that the right had been “clearly established” in a previous ruling. Following two cases concerning corrections officers accused of mistreating prisoners, in which one prisoner was kept in unsanitary conditions and the other was assaulted for no reason, the court suggested that some cases are so egregious that no precedent directly on point was necessary to allow a plaintiff to sue.
The recent decisions, which concerned police officers, covered one domestic dispute in which a disgruntled boyfriend was shot with nonlethal beanbag rounds and pinned to the ground by an officer’s knee and another where a drunken ex-husband was shot and killed by officers after brandishing a hammer, which took a different approach. In the case of the beanbag incident, while the Ninth Circuit allowed the plaintiff’s excessive force lawsuit against the offending officer to proceed, saying the officer had been on notice that putting his knee on a prone man’s back with enough force to injure him was unlawful, the Supreme Court disagreed saying that neither the plaintiff “nor the court of appeals identified any Supreme Court case that addresses facts like the ones at issue here.” In the case with the hammer, despite the Tenth Circuit letting the case proceed, ruling that a jury could find that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity because previous rulings had put them on notice about creating circumstances that could lead to the shooting, the Supreme Court ruled that the appeals court had not identified any earlier decision that “comes close to establishing that the officers’ conduct was unlawful.”