Supreme Court Sends Case Denying Police Officer Qualified Immunity Back to Lower Court

In a per curiam (unauthored) unanimous opinion in City of Escondido v. Emmons the Supreme Court granted one police officer qualified immunity and instructed the Ninth Circuit to decide again whether another officer should have been granted qualified immunity. As it has done many times before, the Supreme Court criticized the Ninth Circuit for defining the right at issue (here to be free from excessive force) at too high a level of generality.

In April 2013 police arrested Maggie Emmons’ husband at their apartment for domestic violence. A few weeks later, after Maggie’s husband had been released, police received a 911 call from Maggie’s roommate’s mother, Trina. While Trina was on the phone with her daughter she overheard Maggie and her daughter yelling at each other and Maggie’s daughter screaming for help.

When the officers knocked on the door no one answered but they were able to try to convince Maggie to open the door by talking to her through a side window. An unidentified male told Maggie to back away from the window. Officer Craig was the only officer standing outside the door when a man walked out of the apartment. Officer Craig told the man not to close the door but he did and he tried to brush past Officer Craig. Officer Craig stopped him, took him to the ground, and handcuffed him. The man was Maggie’s father, Marty Emmons. He sued Officer Craig and Sergeant Toth, another officer at the scene, for excessive force.

State and local government officials can be sued for money damages in their individual capacity if they violate a person’s constitutional rights. Qualified immunity protects government officials from such lawsuits where the law they violated isn’t “clearly established.”

The Ninth Circuit denied the officers qualified immunity in this case saying the “right to be free of excessive force was clearly established.” Regarding Sergeant Toth the Supreme Court held he should have been granted qualified immunity because he didn’t use any force against Emmons.

Regarding Officer Craig the Court said the Ninth Circuit defined the right to be free from excessive force at too high a level of generality. Instead, the Ninth Circuit “should have asked whether clearly established law prohibited the officers from stopping and taking down a man in these circumstances.” The lower court did cite to a Ninth Circuit case holding that persons have a right to be free from non-trivial force for engaging in passive resistance. But the Ninth Circuit “made no effort to explain how that case law prohibited Officer Craig’s actions in this case.” The Supreme Court vacated and remanded the Ninth Circuit’s denial of qualified immunity to Officer Craig.