The US Supreme Court reaffirms police officers accused of excessive violence

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An overview of the US Supreme Court building in Washington, DC, the United States, June 25, 2021. REUTERS / Ken Cedeno

October 18 (Reuters) – The US Supreme Court signaled on Monday that it is not backing down on its inclination to provide legal protection called “qualified immunity” to police accused of excessive use of force in proceedings, and ruled on Cases from California and Oklahoma separately in favor of officials Monday.

The judges overturned a lower court ruling allowing officers Josh Girdner and Brandon Vick for the fatal shooting of a hammer-wielding man in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in 2016.

They also overturned a lower court’s decision to deny Police Officer Daniel Rivas-Villegas’ petition for qualified immunity in a lawsuit alleging excessive violence in 2016 while meeting a suspect in Union City, California , Was handcuffed.

The brief judgments were not signed without any public disagreement between the judges on the cases, both of which were decided without oral arguments.

Skilled immunity defenses protect police and other government officials from civil law proceedings in certain circumstances and only allow actions to be taken when a person’s “clearly established” legal or constitutional rights have been violated.

The verdicts indicated that judges believe that the lower courts are still too often refusing qualified immunity in cases of excessive police violence after censuring appeals courts on the issue in recent years.

“These are not the acts of a court likely to end or seriously reform qualified immunity,” wrote Chris Kemmitt, an attorney for civil rights group NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, on Twitter.

A 2020 Reuters investigation revealed how qualified immunity, with the Supreme Court’s continued improvements, has made it easier for police officers to kill or injure civilians with impunity.

In the Oklahoma case, police responded to a complaint from the murdered man’s former wife, Dominic Rollice, that he was drunk and lying in her garage.

Officials told Rollice they were not there to arrest him but “drive him out of there” according to court records, but he refused to go with them. A lower court found that the officers then advanced on Rollice, causing him to back away and grab a hammer that he held over his head and refused to drop.

When Rollice appeared to keep lifting the hammer, Girdner and Vick fired several times, killing him. A third officer had ruled that the situation required him to “become less fatal” by holstering his firearm and using his stun gun instead.

Rollice’s estate sued Girdner and Vick, accusing them of excessive force in breach of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment prohibiting improper searches and seizures. Police said they used force because they feared Rollice would storm them or throw a hammer.

The U.S. 10th Court of Appeals in Denver denied officers qualified immunity in 2020, ruling that they may have unjustifiably escalated the situation. The Supreme Court on Monday declined to rule “whether the reckless creation of a situation requiring lethal violence may itself violate the Fourth Amendment,” instead saying that no previous case has “clearly established” that the officers’ actions were unlawful.

In the California case, the judges ruled in favor of Rivas-Villegas for the same reason. In this case, a man named Ramon Cortesluna was arrested at his home. Rivas-Villegas pressed Cortesluna down with his foot and then pressed his knee into the man’s back while another officer handcuffed him.

The US 9th Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco, ruled last year that Cortesluna’s excessive claim to violence could be brought to justice, finding the suspect was vulnerable and did not resist.

Democrats in Congress have sought to restrict qualified immunity as part of police reform legislation. The House of Representatives passed a Democrat-backed bill that would remove qualified law enforcement immunity, but Senate talks between Democrats and Republicans over police reform stalled last month.

Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Additional coverage from Lawrence Hurley in Washington; Adaptation by Will Dunham


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