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Supreme Court finds officers covered by 'qualified immunity' in two cases

By Don Jacobson
Supreme Court finds officers covered by 'qualified immunity' in two cases
Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, appeared outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on May 20, calling for Congress to end "qualified immunity" for officers. File Photo by Sarah Silbiger/UPI | License Photo

Oct. 18 (UPI) -- The Supreme Court on Monday ruled in favor of police in a pair of cases challenging officers' right to "qualified legal immunity" from civil damages resulting from their actions.

In one case, Daniel Rivas-Villegas vs. Ramon Cortesluna, the Court ruled that qualified immunity protected an officer accused of using excessive force and violating the civil rights of a man who was held down with a knee to his back during an arrest.

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In the other case, City of Tahleduah, Okla., et al. v. The Estate of Dominic F. Rollice, the Court found in favor of two officers who shot and killed a man they believe had intended to attack them with a hammer.

The plaintiffs in each case sought to collect monetary damages resulting from the incidents, citing excessive use of force and violation of civil rights.

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The defendants, however, claimed their actions were protected by the doctrine of qualified immunity, which shields government officials performing discretionary functions from lawsuits unless a plaintiff shows that their conduct violated "clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known."

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Eliminating or modifying the doctrine has been the subject of ongoing political debates over police reform in the wake of the widespread protests following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020.

Bipartisan Senate negotiations on a police reform bill broke down last month after the House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021, which included provisions to eliminate qualified immunity for officers.

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In the two unsigned opinions, the Supreme Court on Monday ruled officers deserved qualified immunity, reversing lower court decisions in each case.

In Daniel Rivas-Villegas vs. Ramon Cortesluna, they agreed that Rivas-Villegas, a police officer in Union City, Calif., did not use excessive force in restraining Cortesluna in order to take a knife away from him. The ruling overturned a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

In the Oklahoma case, the high court sided with three officers who claimed they were justified in killing Dominic Rollice in 2016 after he grabbed a hammer and refused to drop it despite their orders.

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The high court's decision reversed a ruling by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which had determined the officers did not qualify for immunity because their actions to corner Rollice in the back of the garage led to the unjustified use of deadly force.

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Protesters march for social justice

The Surrogate's Court building exterior remains vandalized while Occupy City Hall protests continue outside City Hall in New York City on June 30. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

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