Bench Memos

Law & the Courts

Supreme Court Issues Rulings in Favor of Qualified Immunity

The doctrine of qualified immunity appears to be under attack from many directions, but the Supreme Court is standing strong by its doctrine.

In a pair of decisions today—Rivas-Villegas v. Cortesluna and City of Tahlequah v. Bond—the Supreme Court, without any registered dissent, summarily reversed rulings by the Ninth Circuit and the Tenth Circuit, respectively, that had held that officers were not entitled to qualified immunity.

As the Court explains in City of Tahlequah, while the doctrine of qualified immunity does not shield officers from civil liability if their conduct violates “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known,” the Court has repeatedly instructed the lower courts “not to define clearly established law at too high a level of generality”:

It is not enough that a rule be suggested by then-existing precedent; the rule’s contours must be so well defined that it is clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted.

Similarly, in Rivas-Villegas, the Court’s per curiam opinion, citing five of its own precedents, states (citations omitted):

“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.” A right is clearly established when it is “sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.” Although “this Court’s case law does not require a case directly on point for a right to be clearly established, existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate.” This inquiry “must be undertaken in light of the specific context of the case, not as a broad general proposition.”

“[S]pecificity is especially important in the Fourth Amendment context, where . . . 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.” Whether an officer has used excessive force depends on “the facts and circumstances of each particular case, including the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.” … “[I]n an obvious case, these standards can ‘clearly establish’ the answer, even without a body of relevant case law.” But this is not an obvious case. Thus, to show a violation of clearly established law, Cortesluna must identify a case that put Rivas-Villegas on notice that his specific conduct was unlawful.

The Court’s ruling in Rivas-Villegas, I’ll note, cited with approval Judge Daniel Collins’s dissent below. Disputing the majority’s conclusion that “existing precedent squarely governs the specific facts of this case,” Collins observed that the facts in that supposedly precedential case were “materially distinguishable from this case”: “There is a very significant difference between using a knee to hold down a person who is suspected of a serious violent crime who is armed with a knife (as in this case) and using a knee to hold down a noisy neighbor armed with nothing more than a sandwich (as in [the precedent cited by the majority]).”

This is just the latest in a series of rulings in which the Court has vindicated Collins.

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