Something rather strange happened at the Supreme Court today, which probably just makes it another day ending in a “Y.” This was the case of Kisela v. Hughes, in which Amy Hughes was suing Andrew Kisela, a police officer who shot her four times during a domestic dispute outside her home. You can read all the details here, but the short version of it leaves plenty of questions.
Police received a call claiming that Hughes was seen outside of her home carrying a large knife, screaming and acting in an erratic fashion. Upon arriving, Officer Kisela observed Hughes carrying the knife and moving down the driveway toward another person who was standing there. (This person turned out to be the friend and roommate of Hughes.) Kisela ordered Hughes to drop the knife and comply with his instructions. She failed to do so and he shot her. Hughes sued Kisela for violating her federal civil rights while Kisela claimed immunity. The 9th Circuit agreed with Hughes and said the lawsuit could move forward. It was appealed to the Supreme Court.
Now, if we were only discussing whether or not this was “a good shoot” as in so many other officer-involved shootings, it might be a tight call. Kisela clearly wasn’t in fear for his own life, but he’s also charged with protecting the public, and if he honestly felt that Hughes might reach and attack the other person before he would have time to stop her, shooting her might have been a viable option. In such a case you can see how the justices might offer the benefit of the doubt and side with the officer.
And as it turned out, the Supreme Court, in an unsigned, 7-2 decision, overturned the 9th Circuit and dismissed the case, saying that Kisela had immunity. But they didn’t base it on whether or not Kisela had acted appropriately. They summoned up an entirely different rationale and claimed that the officer’s immunity could only be set aside if a similar case had previously been handled the same way with the result being found constitutional. The LA Times has the details of the majority opinion.
In an eight-page unsigned opinion in Kisela vs. Hughes, the justices did not rule on whether officer Andrew Kisela acted reasonably when he used potentially deadly force against Amy Hughes, who was standing in her driveway a few feet away from her friend and roommate, Sharon Chadwick. The police had been called after a neighbor reporting seeing a woman acting strangely and carrying a large knife.
Rather than decide whether Kisela used excessive force, the court instead ruled he could not be sued because the victim could not cite a similar case involving a police shooting of a person holding a knife.
“Police officers are entitled to qualified immunity unless existing precedent squarely governs the specific facts at issue…This is far from an obvious case in which any competent officer would have known that shooting Hughes to protect [Sharon] Chadwick would violate the 4th Amendment” and its ban on unreasonable seizures, the court said Monday.
Now, I’m not a lawyer and I don’t even play one on TV, but doesn’t this sound a bit like a Catch-22 situation?
PLAINTIFF: I was out in my driveway with a kitchen knife and a cop shot me. I’d like to sue him, please.
SCOTUS: Sorry, but there’s no precedent for that because no lawsuit over a cop shooting someone with a kitchen knife has ever been found to be constitutional. So you can’t.
PLAINTIFF: I see. So if I’m out in the driveway next year with a kitchen knife and another cop shoots me, I can sue that cop?
SCOTUS: No, because this case wasn’t found constitutional. So there still wouldn’t be any precedent. See?
PLAINTIFF: Um… is there someone else I could talk to?
Either it was a justified shooting or it wasn’t. Since when did we start requiring precedent of a previous accusation being found constitutional before a new one could even be considered? By that logic, the unique details of any police shooting which doesn’t involve the most stereotypical case imaginable would wind up being “the first time” for such a lawsuit. And if you’re the first one up to bat for that given scenario you would lose by default. And that means that anyone coming after you with the same set of circumstances would lose as well, doesn’t it?
This just strikes me as beyond strange. Sotomayor wrote a blistering dissent (joining with Ginsburg) which probably went too far in the other direction, but she did raise some valid points about eroding public support in the legal system in cases such as this. If the Supreme Court had been asked to simply decide if the shooting was unjustified, allowing the lawsuit to move forward, we could probably get behind them. But that’s not the question they were answering here and their conclusion isn’t satisfying at all.