Supreme Court backs qualified immunity for police officers, allowing cops greater protection from lawsuits

Qualified immunity has come under renewed criticism following the police killing of George Floyd last year.

The Supreme Court on Monday granted qualified immunity for police officers accused of using excessive force in separate cases in California and Oklahoma.

Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that protects cops against civil lawsuits over incidents that occur while they’re on duty.

In the California case, a lower court denied a police officer’s request for qualified immunity and allowed a lawsuit against him to proceed. The police officer, Daniel Rivas-Villegas, could have used excessive force in violation of the 4th Amendment when he knelt on a suspect’s back while handcuffing him on the ground, the court said.

But the Supreme Court reversed that ruling, siding with the police officer and reinstating qualified immunity. The justices wrote the suspect must show that the police officer violated “clearly established law” in order to move forward with a lawsuit against him. No justices gave a public dissent.

The high court also overturned a similar lower court decision in Oklahoma. The case involves a 2016 incident, when the police responded to a 911 call that a man, Dominic Rollice, was in his ex-wife’s garage intoxicated and would not leave. Shortly after the police arrived, Rollice grabbed a hammer from a work bench and turned to the officers, who say they ordered him to put the tool down. When Rollice raised the hammer above his head, the police shot and killed him.

Rollice’s estate sued the police officers, alleging use of excessive force. A district judge ruled in favor of the officers, but then a federal appeals court reversed that decision.

The Supreme Court has now overturned that ruling, writing: “On this record, the officers plainly did not violate any clearly established law.” Like the California case, there were no public dissents.

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