In a decision handed down Monday, the Supreme Court made it even more difficult for victims of police violence to bring action against police officers who use excessive force.
As the Los Angeles Times reports, the high court ruled in favor of an Arizona police officer who shot a woman outside her home because she was carrying a knife. In doing so, the Times notes, the court “effectively advises courts to rely more heavily on the officer’s view of such incidents, rather than the victims.”
Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were the lone dissenters in the ruling, with Sotomayor delivering an impassioned opinion. Wrote Sotomayor about the court’s decision:
Its decision is not just wrong on the law; it also sends an alarming signal to law enforcement officers and the public. It tells officers that they can shoot first and think later, and it tells the public that palpably unreasonable conduct will go unpunished.
The case stems from a 2010 incident in which Tucson, Ariz., police were called to do a welfare check on a home after a neighbor called to report a woman acting erratically and hacking at a tree with a knife.
According to the New York Times, when officers arrived, they encountered Sharon Chadwick standing in the home’s driveway. Moments later, Amy Hughes came out of the house, holding a kitchen knife.
Officers weren’t aware at the time that Hughes and Chadwick were roommates. Hughes stopped about 6 feet from Chadwick, “not moving, [and she] spoke calmly, held the knife at her side and made no aggressive movements,” the Times reports. Chadwick herself later said that she didn’t feel threatened by Hughes, who seemed composed.
Nevertheless, police drew their weapons and ordered Hughes to drop the knife. When she didn’t (the Times notes that it’s not clear whether Hughes heard the officers’ commands), she was shot four times by Officer Andrew Kisela.
Hughes survived and sued the officer for excessive force. The Supreme Court decision, however, ultimately found that Kisela was entitled to “qualified immunity,” meaning that he was protected from being sued because Hughes couldn’t cite a similar case in which the officer’s actions were deemed unconstitutionally excessive.
In other words, unless a court finds a specific course of action—shooting a person in his or her driveway while that person is holding a knife, for example—to be unconstitutional, cops cannot be sued for taking those actions.
“Police officers are entitled to qualified immunity unless existing precedent squarely governs the specific facts at issue,” the court wrote.
Sotomayor, in her dissent, wrote that the court’s decision was “one-sided” and transformed qualified immunity into “an absolute shield for law enforcement officers.”
This, she wrote, was in keeping with a disturbing trend at the high court. In her opinion, Sotomayor included the following 2015 quote from former U.S. Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, who died last week: “Nearly all of the Supreme Court’s qualified immunity cases come out the same way—by finding immunity for the officials.”