Constitutional Law: Fourth Amendment Arrest Excessive Police Force

May 23rd, 2018 by Rieders Travis in Constitutional Law

Qualified Immunity, Excessive Police Force and Fourth Amendment

Andrew Kisela v. Amy Hughes, 584 U.S. ___ (2018).  PER CURIAM. Petitioner Andrew Kisela, a police officer in Tucson, Arizona, shot respondent Amy Hughes. 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 had been there but a few minutes, perhaps just a minute. When Kisela fired, Hughes was holding a large kitchen knife, had taken steps toward another woman standing nearby Chadwick, and had refused to drop the knife after at least two commands to do so. The question is whether at the time of the shooting Kisela’s actions violated clearly established law.

All three of the officers later said that at the time of the shooting they subjectively believed Hughes to be a threat to Chadwick. 

Here, the Court need not, and does not, decide whether Kisela violated the Fourth Amendment when he used deadly force against Hughes. For even assuming a Fourth Amendment violation occurred—a proposition that is not at all evident—on these facts Kisela was at least entitled to qualified immunity. 

“Qualified immunity attaches when an official’s conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” White v. Pauly, 580 U. S. ___, ___ (2017) (per curiam) (slip op., at 6) (alterations and internal quotation marks omitted). “Because the focus is on whether the officer had fair notice that her conduct was unlawful, reasonableness is judged against the backdrop of the law at the time of the conduct.” Brosseau v. Haugen, 543 U. S. 194, 198 (2004) (per curiam).

“[S]pecificity is especially important in the Fourth Amendment context, where the Court has recognized that it is sometimes difficult for an officer to determine how the relevant legal doctrine, here excessive force, will apply to the factual situation the officer confronts.” Mullenix v. Luna, 577 U. S. ___, ___ (2015) (per curiam) (slip op., at 5) (internal quotation marks omitted). Use of excessive force is an area of the law “in which the result depends very much on the facts of each case,” and thus police officers are entitled to qualified immunity unless existing precedent “squarely governs” the specific facts at issue. Id., at ___ (slip op., at 6) (internal quotation marks omitted and emphasis deleted). Precedent involving similar facts can help move a case beyond the otherwise “hazy border between excessive and acceptable force” and thereby provide an officer notice that a specific use of force is unlawful. Id., at ___ (slip op., at 12) (internal quotation marks omitted).

This is far from an obvious case in which any competent officer would have known that shooting Hughes to protect Chadwick would violate the Fourth Amendment.

For these reasons, the petition for certiorari is granted; the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed; and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.