U.S. Supreme Court
Posted January 7, 2019, 2:00 pm CST
A federal appeals court erred when it allowed an arrestee’s lawsuit against two police officers, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The Supreme Court ruled the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrongly allowed suit against a police sergeant who wasn’t involved in the arrest and used the wrong test to determine whether the officers had qualified immunity from suit. (The opinion begins at page 27 of this PDF.)
The court told the 9th Circuit to reconsider the case against Escondido, California, officer Robert Craig and reversed the 9th Circuit’s decision allowing suit against the sergeant, Kevin Toth.
The plaintiff, Marty Emmons, was forced to the ground and handcuffed by an officer responding to a domestic violence call. Emmons was not the domestic violence suspect; he was the father of a woman whose roommate had phoned her mother screaming for help, prompting the mother’s call to police. During the call to her mother, the roommate and Emmons’ daughter were both screaming at each other.
When police arrived, Emmons’ daughter spoke with officers through the window, but she would not let them in. Marty Emmons opened the door and stepped outside. Craig told Emmons to keep the door open, but Emmons shut it. It was at that point that Craig took Emmons to the ground and cuffed him. He was charged with the misdemeanor offense of resisting and delaying a police officer.
The 9th Circuit had ruled Emmons was entitled to sue the arresting officer as well as Toth. The appeals court had reasoned the right to be free of excessive force was clearly established at the time of the arrest, which meant the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity.
The Supreme Court said the 9th Circuit’s finding of no immunity for the police sergeant “was erroneous—and quite puzzling” since he was not involved in the arrest.
In addition, the 9th Circuit “was far too general” when it said the right to be free of excessive force was clearly established, the Supreme court said.
The proper test is whether the right to be free of excessive force was clearly established in these particular circumstances, the Supreme Court said. “Under our cases,” the Supreme Court said, “the clearly established right must be defined with specificity.”
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