Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Supreme Court Clarifies That Qualified Immunity Attaches Unless An Officers’ Use of Force Clearly Violates Established Law

In City of Escondido v. Emmons, the Supreme Court examined if qualified immunity applied when two police officers forcibly apprehended a man at the scene of a reported domestic violence incident.

In April of 2013, Escondido police received a 911 call concerning a possible domestic disturbance at Maggie Emmons' apartment. Officer Houchin and Officer Robert Craig responded to the call. The entire event was captured on Body Worn Cameras (“BWC”).

Upon arriving at the scene, the two Officers knocked on the door of the apartment. No one answered. However, a side window was open. The two officers spoke with Maggie through that window. They were attempting to convince Maggie to open the door to her apartment so that they could conduct a welfare check. At the same time, a male inside the apartment began telling Maggie to back away from that window.

A few moments later, a man opened the apartment door and came outside. At that point, Officer Craig was standing alone just outside the door. Officer Craig told the man not to close the door, but the man closed the door and tried to brush past him. Officer Craig stopped the man, took him quickly to the ground, and handcuffed him.

Officer Craig did not hit the man, nor display any weapon. The BWC footage shows that the man was not in any visible or audible pain as a result of the takedown or while on the ground. Within a few minutes, the officers helped the man up and arrested him for a misdemeanor offense of resisting and delaying a police officer.

The man turned out to be Maggie Emmons' father, Marty Emmons. Marty Emmons later sued Officer Craig claiming excessive force.  

The Trial court rejected his claim. It noted that the "video shows that the officers acted professionally and respectfully.” Moreover, the trial court held that the officers were entitled to “qualified immunity” because the officers were responding to a domestic dispute, and that the encounter had escalated when the officers could not enter the apartment to conduct a welfare check. In fact, the trial court pointed out that when Marty Emmons exited the apartment, none of the officers knew whether he was armed or dangerous, or whether he had injured any individuals inside the apartment.

The Supreme Court agreed with the trial court. It held that “it is sometimes difficult for an officer to determine how the relevant legal doctrine, here excessive force, will apply to the factual situation the officer confronts. Use of excessive force is an area of the law in which the result depends very much on the facts of each case, and thus police officers are entitled to qualified immunity unless existing precedent squarely governs the specific facts at issue.”

To that end, the Court stressed that “while there does not have to be a case directly on point, existing precedent must place the lawfulness of the particular [action] beyond debate. Accordingly, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the Court of Appeals “to properly analyze whether clearly established law barred Officer Craig from stopping and taking down Marty Emmons in this manner as he exited the apartment.”