Bringing a Lawbook to a Gunfight

An interesting case came out of the US Supreme Court ten days ago.  In May 2010 three officers of the University of Arizona Police Department responded to a callout regarding a woman [Amy Hughes] acting erratically (hacking a tree with a knife).  On scene they found the woman’s housemate [Sharon Chadwick] on the other side of a chainlink fence.  Hughes came and stood about six feet from her, still holding the knife.  She ignored officers’ demands to drop the weapon and was shot four times by officer Andrew Kisela.

U AZ Police

Hughes sued Kisela on the basis that he had used excessive force, violating her Fourth Amendment rights:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The US District Court for Arizona summarily dismissed the claim.  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the District Court and remanded the matter for further proceedings.  The defendant appealed to the US Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court expressed doubt that Hughes’ rights had been violated but in any case bypassed the question.  It concluded that Kisela was immune from being sued.  In essence, a police officer will be immune from suit where their action did not violate clearly established rights of which a reasonable person would have known.  The existence of the right must be well established and should not be defined at a very general level: defining a right very generally would empty the immunity of value.

Where constitutional guidelines seem inapplicable or too remote, it does not suffice for a court simply to state that an officer may not use unreasonable and excessive force, deny qualified immunity, and then remit the case for trial on the question of reasonableness.

On the undisputed facts it was not obvious that a competent police officer would have known that shooting Hughes to protect Chadwick would breach Hughes’ Fourth Amendment rights.

Kisela v Hughes, 584 US ___ (2018)