When the current session of the United States Supreme Court convened, a widely distributed opinion said the court was about to “turn back” the clock on many social issues where the country had “evolved” to positions significantly different than those reflected in the law.
If that position meant the high court would refuse to rewrite law through various legal contortions designed to make rioting, violence and other forms of “social protest” legal, it would seem the pundit was, at least, partially correct.
Yesterday, (Oct 18) the high court issued a pair of unsigned summary rulings in favor of police officers in the matter of qualified immunity.
Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine developed in the courts over time that essentially shields law enforcement from liability, primarily from claims of excessive force.
As you can imagine, this isn’t being received very well by the same groups that wanted to de-fund the police following the 2020 death of George Floyd.
Before the heated responses get started, no one is suggesting what happened to Floyd was either justified or reasonable. But the legal precedents of qualified immunity say an officer is not liable unless it was “clearly established” by prior cases that the conduct at issue was unconstitutional.
Critics of the opinion say that bar is too-high and should be lowered to call more officers to account for their actions.
The cases were different in several ways. The first, from California, alleged that an officer used excessive force when removing a knife from a suspect’s pocket. The court of appeals had ruled the officer had used excessive force because the “existing precedent” had put him on notice that his action was excessive force. The Supreme Court reversed that decision, writing there were factual distinctions between the precedent and the “case at hand.”
In an Oklahoma case, officers shot and killed a man when officers say he appeared to be preparing to throw a hammer at them after he had been ordered to put it down. When he refused, and raised the hammer “like he was getting ready to throw it,” he was shot.
When his estate sued alleging violation of his Fourth Amendment rights, a district court sided with the officers. But an appeals panel on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the district court, writing the officers had “recklessly” cornered the man, citing several cases that it said “clearly established” their conduct as unlawful.
The Supreme Court reversed that ruling, holding that the 10th Circuit erred because it failed to “a single precedent finding a Fourth Amendment violation under similar circumstances.”
In citing the “similar circumstances” the high court upheld the doctrine of qualified immunity.
What the rulings were both missing may be more significant that the ruling themselves.
Both rulings were made absent of any dissenting opinions. In short, a majority of the justices didn’t find the existing standard to be a bar too-high to be reached when it comes to excessive force, each of the justices were in agreement.
Their unanimous ruling demonstrates their ability to consider merits of cases brought before them. An encouraging thought when the two remaining legs of the stool of governance seem a bit out of level.
Content provided by The Outdoor Wire