At the outset, it is important to understand the concept of Qualified Immunity and how the process works in determining whether the case will be dismissed or in the alternative, that an officer will face a trial. As a general matter, following discovery, attorneys representing officers will file a motion for summary judgment and qualified immunity. In doing so, two basic concepts are put before the court.
- Even if one accepts the plaintiff’s version of events, there was no Constitutional Violation.
- Even if one accepts the plaintiff’s version of events and there was a Constitutional Violation, the case should still be dismissed because there was no similar case that put the officers on notice that their conduct violated the Constitution at the time the event occurred.
If the court answers the first question, the merits or Constitutional question in favor of the officer, then the conduct was Constitutional, and officers can continue conducting themselves in that manner. If the court answers the first question with a finding that the officers’ actions were Unconstitutional then officers, subject to that court’s jurisdiction are now on notice that the conduct is Unconstitutional.
The court then proceeds to the second question, specifically, even if the officer’s actions were Unconstitutional, was there a similar case, in a jurisdiction controlling this officer’s conduct or by the United States Supreme Court, that put the officer on notice that his or her conduct was Unconstitutional. If there is no similar case, then the lawsuit against the officer can be dismissed on Qualified Immunity.
One of the issues that often occurs is that courts are allowed to skip the first step in this process and provide no answer as to whether the officer’s action was Constitutional or Unconstitutional and simply proceed to the second question and find that the law was not clearly established.
In two use of force cases decided in per curiam decisions from October 18, 2021, the United States Supreme Court did just that. Bond v. City of Tahlequah is outlined in a second article. In both use of force cases, the Court did not answer whether the officers’ actions were Constitutional, but instead, proceeded to the second question and determined that the law was not clearly established to put the officers on notice as to the Constitutionality of their force.
The United Supreme Court outlined the facts in Rivas-Villegas v. Cortesluna as follows:
Petitioner Daniel Rivas-Villegas, a police officer in Union City, California, responded to a 911 call reporting that a woman and her two children were barricaded in a room for fear that respondent Ramon Cortesluna, the woman’s boyfriend, was going to hurt them. After confirming that the family had no way of escaping the house, Rivas-Villegas and the other officers present commanded Cortesluna outside and onto the ground. Officers saw a knife in Cortesluna’s left pocket. While Rivas-Villegas and another officer were in the process of removing the knife and handcuffing Cortesluna, Rivas-Villegas briefly placed his knee on the left side of Cortesluna’s back. Cortesluna later sued under Rev. Stat. §1979, 42 U. S. C. §1983, alleging, as relevant, that Rivas-Villegas used excessive force. At issue here is whether Rivas-Villegas is entitled to qualified immunity because he did not violate clearly established law.
The undisputed facts are as follows. A 911 operator received a call from a crying 12-year-old girl reporting that she, her mother, and her 15-year-old sister had shut them- selves into a room at their home because her mother’s boyfriend, Cortesluna, was trying to hurt them and had a chainsaw. The girl told the operator that Cortesluna was “ ‘always drinking,’ ” had “ ‘anger issues,’ ” was “ ‘really mad,’ ” and was using the chainsaw to “ ‘break something in the house.’ A police dispatcher relayed this information along with a description of Cortesluna in a request for officers to respond.
Rivas-Villegas heard the broadcast and responded to the scene along with four other officers. The officers spent several minutes observing the home and reported seeing through a window a man matching Cortesluna’s description. One officer asked whether the girl and her family could exit the house. Dispatch responded that they “‘were unable to get out’ ” and confirmed that the 911 operator had “ ‘hear[d] sawing in the background’ ” and thought that Cortesluna might be trying to saw down the door.
After receiving this information, Rivas-Villegas knocked on the door and stated loudly, “ ‘police department, come to the front door, Union City police, come to the front door.’” Another officer yelled, “‘he’s coming and has a weapon.’” A different officer then stated, “‘use less- lethal,’ ” referring to a beanbag shotgun. When Rivas- Villegas ordered Cortesluna to “ ‘drop it,’ ” Cortesluna dropped the “weapon,” later identified as a metal tool.
Rivas-Villegas then commanded, “‘come out, put your hands up, walk out towards me.’ ” Cortesluna put his hands up and Rivas-Villegas told him to “ ‘keep coming.’ ” As Cortesluna walked out of the house and toward the officers, Rivas-Villegas said, “‘Stop. Get on your knees.’” Plaintiff stopped 10 to 11 feet from the officers. Another officer then saw a knife sticking out from the front left pocket of Cortesluna’s pants and shouted, “‘he has a knife in his left pocket, knife in his pocket,’” and directed Cortesluna, “‘don’t put your hands down,’ ” “ ‘hands up.’ ” Cortesluna turned his head toward the instructing officer but then lowered his head and his hands in contravention of the officer’s orders. Another officer twice shot Cortesluna with a bean- bag round from his shotgun, once in the lower stomach and once in the left hip.
After the second shot, Cortesluna raised his hands over his head. The officers shouted for him to “ ‘get down,’ ” which he did. Another officer stated, “‘left pocket, he’s got a knife.’” Rivas-Villegas then straddled Cortesluna. He placed his right foot on the ground next to Cortesluna’s right side with his right leg bent at the knee. He placed his left knee on the left side of Cortesluna’s back, near where Cortesluna had a knife in his pocket. He raised both of Cotesluna’s arms up behind his back. Rivas-Villegas was in this position for no more than eight seconds before standing up while continuing to hold Cortesluna’s arms. At that point, another officer, who had just removed the knife from Cortesluna’s pocket and tossed it away, came and hand- cuffed Cortesluna’s hands behind his back. Rivas-Villegas lifted Cortesluna up and moved him away from the door. (citations omitted).
Cortesluna filed suit alleging that the knee to the back was excessive force. It is noted that the Federal District Court (Trial Court) granted summary judgment to Rivas-Villegas but the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed finding that a prior case, Lalonde v. Riverside, 204 F.3d 947 (CA9 2000), had put officers on notice that it would be excessive force where an officer to lean on a prone subject with a knee causing significant injury in a case where the prone subject was not verbally or physically resisting.
The United States Supreme Court noted that there was a dissenting opinion in the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in this case that observed that the facts in LaLonde were distinguishable from what occurred with Mr. Cortesluna such that the decision in LaLonde would not make it clear to every reasonable officer that the force used by Officer Rivas-Villegas was excessive.
It is noted that the LaLonde case involved a disturbing the peace call at an apartment complex where it was known that the complainant had made prior bogus complaints. The responding officer, under the plaintiff’s version of events, reached into LaLonde’s door and grabbed him after LaLonde told the officer that the officer did not know what he was talking about. The arrest was for obstructing a police investigation. In the course of the apprehension, LaLonde was pepper-sprayed and a knee was put on his back while he was prone.
The Court in distinguishing the two cases noted that LaLonde was a “mere noise complaint, whereas here they were responding to a serious alleged incident of domestic violence possibly involving a chainsaw. In addition, LaLonde was unarmed. Cortesluna, in contrast, had a knife protruding from his pocket for which he had just previously appeared to reach. Further, in this case, video evidence shows,…Rivas-Villegas placed his knee on Cortesluna for no more than eight seconds and only on the side of his back near the knife that officers were in the process of retrieving. LaLonde, in contrast, testified that the officer deliberately dug his knee into his back when he had no weapon and had made no threat when approached by police.”
The United States Supreme Court, like the dissenting judge in the Ninth Circuit, found that LaLonde was not similar enough to the case involving Cortesluna such that it would put every reasonable officer on notice that putting a knee on someone’s back during a volatile arrest would violate the Fourth Amendment. It is noted that Rivas-Villegas knee was on Cortesluna’s back for no more than eight seconds.
In granting Qualified Immunity to Officer Rivas-Villegas, the Court noted that “Specificity is especially important in the Fourth Amendment context, where…it is sometimes difficult for the officer to determine how the relevant legal doctrine, here excessive force, will apply to the factual situation the officer confronts.”
The Court went on to note that in order to prevail Mr. Cortesluna would have to “identify a case that put [Officer] Rivas-Villegas on notice that his specific conduct was unlawful.” (emphasis added).
Neither Bond nor Rivas-Villegas changes any Constitutional Rule on Use of Force/Deadly Force or how force will be analyzed.
Both Bond and Rivas-Villegas again make clear to the lower courts that Fourth Amendment Qualified Immunity Denials must be based on prior cases that have some specificity to the case at hand which put every reasonable officer on notice that their actions violated the Fourth Amendment