U.S. Supreme Court holds officer entitled to qualified immunity after shooting woman walking towards roommate with a large knife

Kisela v. Hughe, 17-467, 584 U.S. – (April 2, 2018).

This is an excessive force/qualified immunity case where the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the denial of the officer’s qualified immunity.

Tucson police officer Kisela and two other officers had arrived on the scene after hearing a police radio report that a woman was engaging in erratic behavior with a knife. They viewed Hughes (who matched the description given on the radio) holding a large kitchen knife and advancing towards another woman standing nearby. After commanding Hughes to stop and her failing to comply, Kisela shot Hughes. she was treated for non-life-threatening injuries. The other woman, Chadwick, was Hughes’ roommate. Less than a minute had transpired from the moment the officers saw Chadwick to the moment Kisela fired shots. Hughes sued Kisela for excessive force.  Kisela moved for qualified immunity, which the trial court granted, but the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed.

Excessive force is a fact specific analysis. Specificity is especially important as it is sometimes difficult for an officer to determine how the relevant legal doctrine will apply to the factual situation the officer confronts. In this case, Kisela had mere seconds to assess the potential danger to Chadwick. He was confronted with a woman who had just been seen hacking a tree with a large kitchen knife and whose behavior was erratic enough to cause a concerned bystander to call 911. After his commands to stop were not complied with, he defended Chadwick. Those commands were loud enough that Chadwick, who was standing next to Hughes, heard them. The Court noted that “…not one of the decisions relied on by the Court of Appeals…supports denying Kisela qualified immunity.” The panel’s reliance on such prior opinions the way that it did “does not pass the straight-face test.” As a result, Kisela was entitled to qualified immunity.

Justices Sotomayor and Ginsberg dissented, noting they felt Kisela acted too hastily. He did not observe Hughes commit any crimes and, other than walking, was not acting hostile towards Chadwick. Kisela did not wait for Hughes to register, much less respond to, the officers’ rushed commands. Therefore, they felt the immunity should be denied and to let the facts play out as the facts may not be reasonable.  They noted the Majority did not address reasonableness and simply analyzed whether the law was clearly established.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Per Curiam Opinion. Justices Sotomayor and Ginsberg dissented.

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