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SCOTUS Reverses Tenth Circuit’s Denial of Qualified Immunity for Fatal Police Shooting

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) reversed a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit that had reversed the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma’s finding of qualified immunity for police officers who shot and killed a man in his ex-wife’s garage. In so holding, SCOTUS once again has deprived complainants of the right to a jury determination of whether the defendants are liable for their conduct.

Dominic Rollice’s ex-wife called 911 because he was in her garage, drunk, and refusing to leave. Three police officers responded to the call. While the officers stood at the entrance to the garage speaking with Rollice, Officer Josh Girdner asked to pat Rollice down. He refused. Girdner then took one step into the garage, causing Rollice to take one step back. Rollice, still conversing with the officers, turned and walked to the rear of the garage with the officers following close behind, but no officer was within six feet of him. Rollice grabbed a hammer from the back wall, turned toward the officers, and raised the hammer to shoulder level with both hands. Not responding to officers as they drew their guns and ordered him to drop the hammer, he held the hammer high over his head and took a stance as if he were going to throw the hammer at the officers. In response, two officers shot and killed Rollice.

Rollice’s estate filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the two officers, alleging they were liable for violating Rollice’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force. The two officers moved for summary judgment on multiple grounds, including qualified immunity. The district court granted their motion.

The Tenth Circuit reversed, concluding that under circuit precedent an officer can be held liable for a shooting that is objectively reasonable if the officer’s reckless or deliberate conduct created a situation requiring deadly force. Applying that rule, the Tenth Circuit reasoned that a jury could find Officer Girdner’s initial step toward Rollice together with the officers’ subsequent cornering of him in the garage recklessly created a situation that led to the fatal shooting. SCOTUS granted certiorari.

The Court began by declaring, “On this record, the officers plainly did not violate any clearly established law.”

It observed “[t]he doctrine of qualified immunity shields officers from civil liability so long as their conduct ‘does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.’” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223 (2009). The Court reiterated that qualified immunity protects “all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335 (1986).  

The Court stated that it has repeatedly instructed courts “not to define clearly established law at too high a level of generality.” See, e.g., Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731 (2011). It explained that the contours of the rule must be so well defined that it’s “clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted.” Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194 (2001).

That standard was not met in the current case, the Court concluded. According to the Court, nothing in the Tenth Circuit’s cited precedents (see opinion for citations) put the officers on notice that their conduct constituted a Fourth Amendment violation. Thus, the Court held that the officers are entitled to qualified immunity.

Accordingly, SCOTUS reversed the judgment of the Tenth Circuit. See: City of Tahlequah v. Bond, 211 L. Ed. 2d 170 (2021) (per curiam). 

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Related legal cases

City of Tahlequah v. Bond

Ashcroft v. al-Kidd

 

 

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