The Supreme Court Gives Police a Green Light to ‘Shoot First and Think Later’

The Supreme Court just ruled that a police officer could not be sued for gunning down Amy Hughes. This has vast implications for law enforcement accountability. The details of the case are as damning as the decision. Hughes was not suspected of a crime. She was simply standing still, holding a kitchen knife at her side. The officer gave no warning that he was going to shoot her if she did not comply with his commands. Moments later, the officer shot her four times.

“Shoot first and think later,” according to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, is what the officer did.

As Sotomayor argued in dissent, the court’s decision in Kisela v. Hughes means that such “palpably unreason­able conduct will go unpunished.” According to seven of the nine Justices, Hughes’ Fourth Amendment right to not be shot four times in this situation is less protected than the officer’s interest in escaping accountability for his brazen abuse of authority. According to Justice Sotomayor, “If this account of [the officer’s] conduct sounds unreasonable, that is because it was. And yet, the Court ... insulates that conduct from liability under the doctrine of qualified immunity.”

Worse yet, this decision wasn’t a surprise. And it certainly isn’t an aberration.

In fact, it is just the latest in a long line of cases in which the Supreme Court has decimated our ability to vindicate constitutional rights when government actors overstep. And when law enforcement oversteps, as was the case with Hughes, the consequences can be devastating.

As Professor William Baude explains, “[t]he doctrine of qualified immunity prevents government agents from being held personally liable for constitutional violations unless the violation was of ‘clearly established’ law.” If any reasonable judge might have deemed the action permissible, the law is not “clearly established.” Essentially, if you want to sue a police officer who you think violated your constitutional rights, you first have to convince the court that what happened to you was so outrageous that no reasonable person could have thought it was okay.

This makes excessive force cases a steep uphill battle. Such cases turn on the Fourth Amendment — a constitutional right that is notorious for its murky and context-specific contours. So proving a Fourth Amendment violation is hard enough on its own. When you have to prove a “clearly established” violation, the task becomes all but impossible because the Supreme Court keeps raising the bar. This further disempowers those injured or killed by police, and their surviving families.

Let’s examine the evolution of the term.

In 1982 it meant that “a reasonable person would have known” an action was unlawful. Fast forward to 2010 and “clearly established” meant that “every ‘reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.’” The difference between “a” and “every” may seem technical, but, as Dean Chemerinsky and the late Judge Stephen Reinhardt explained, this change marks the difference between a measured fair notice standard under which it was possible to hold law enforcement accountable and what we have now: a system that “protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.”

Qualified immunity has become a misnomer. It should be called what it is, as Justices Sotomayor and Ginsberg did in their dissent from last week’s opinion. It is an “absolute shield.”

This absolute shield subverts the basic principles of our legal system. It’s supposed to be harder to hold someone criminally liable than civilly liable, but is it? If you unknowingly commit a crime and the government wants to put you in prison for it, you can’t use your ignorance of the law as a defense. But if an officer makes “a mistake of law” by unreasonably gunning you down in your own backyard, that officer gets to use the defense of qualified immunity to avoid paying damages in a civil case.

It doesn’t take a law degree to know this is absurd.

Furthermore, it turns out the doctrine of qualified immunity has no legal basis in the first place — the courts simply made it up. So how can it possibly be justified?

The Supreme Court has told us that the doctrine “balances two important interests—the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.” That maybe sounds okay in theory, but Hughes’ case is just the latest to show us that in reality, there is no balance and there is no accountability.

The court’s qualified immunity doctrine contributes to the deep deficit in police accountability throughout our country, which disproportionately threatens and ends the lives of people of color, people with mental or physical disabilities, and members of LGBTQ communities. We are collectively holding law enforcement to the lowest standard of performance, when we should instead incentivize better, smarter, and more humane policing.

The result of the court’s decision is clear. Our right to not be unreasonably shot by the police is less protected, and therefore less important, than the court’s interest in shielding police officers from civil liability for their abuses of authority.

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Anonymous

How stupid you are has a lot to do with how bad this country is being ran.

Anonymous

Many times in US history Supreme Court Justices have made BAD decisions like the Dred Scott Case !!!!!! !!!!! Yes

Anonymous Teacher

Gil, with all due respect, you sound like a racist, sexist, homophobic, self-hating, conservative, wanna-be cop. One who fails to accept that police corruption is a plague on this country, and the systemic discrimination that the poor and POC face is a direct result of right wing politics. I can see the uniform and denied application sitting on the desk where you spend your days in your mother's basement. I wish you would put yourself in the shoes of any of these people who complied and died because weak, racist, insecure, bully cops with below average intelligence can't make a sound split second decision unless the person looks like them.

Anonymous

Contact Oprah Winfrey. She's always claimed to stand for equality, justice and women. If she can give $500,000 to the School affected by the recent shooting, I'm curious to know what her response will be to your appeal.

Anonymous

Utterly ridiculous

Anonymous

Just wondering what the standard was when Wyatt Earp worked in law enforcement

Anonymous

About the same, obviously.

#SeekJustice

Well, that's pretty down right $#!tty. What I'd she was holding a knife in self defense from an attack.. now what? I'm for police protections they have a stressful job, but this goes beyond abuse of those protections. Failure to follow protocol and literally "jumping the gun" should put this LEO out of a job, barred from ever serving in any capacity of the law, and even a fine and some jail time.

Anonymous

These are the facts of the case from the Supreme Court decision:

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, 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.

The record, viewed in the light most favorable to Hughes, shows the following. In May 2010, somebody in Hughes’ neighborhood called 911 to report that a woman was hacking a tree with a kitchen knife. Kisela and another police officer, Alex Garcia, heard about the report over the radio in their patrol car and responded. A few minutes later the person who had called 911 flagged down the officers; gave them a description of the woman with the knife; and told them the woman had been acting erratically. About the same time, a third police officer, Lindsay Kunz, arrived on her bicycle.

Garcia spotted a woman, later identified as Sharon Chadwick, standing next to a car in the driveway of a nearby house. A chain-link fence with a locked gate separated Chadwick from the officers. The officers then saw another woman, Hughes, emerge from the house carrying a large knife at her side. Hughes matched the description of the woman who had been seen hacking a tree. Hughes walked toward Chadwick and stopped no more than six feet from her. All three officers drew their guns. At least twice they told Hughes to drop the knife. Viewing the record in the light most favorable to Hughes, Chadwick said “take it easy” to both Hughes and the officers. Hughes appeared calm, but she did not acknowledge the officers’ presence or drop the knife. The top bar of the chain-link fence blocked Kisela’s line of fire, so he dropped to the ground and shot Hughes four times through the fence. Then the officers jumped the fence, handcuffed Hughes, and called paramedics, who transported her to a hospital. There she was treated for non-life-threatening injuries. Less than a minute had transpired from the moment the officers saw Chadwick to the moment Kisela fired shots.
All three of the officers later said that at the time of the shooting they subjectively believed Hughes to be a threat to Chadwick.

Anonymous

U.S.A., Russia, China, Korea... What is the difference?

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