O n Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a troubling turn, expanded the protections for police who use force against suspects. Two rulings were handed down.
The first involved Rochelle Brosseau, an officer who “shot Kenneth Haugen in 1999 as he fled in his Jeep to avoid being arrested for drug charges and for questioning in a burglary in Puyallup, Wash.,” reported The Associated Press. “Haugen pleaded guilty to fleeing police but then filed suit claiming a civil rights violation. He suffered a punctured lung in the shooting but recovered.”
According to other news reports, Haugen was shot in the back, wasn’t carrying a gun and wasn’t charged with a violent crime.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the shooting was an “unreasonable seizure” and allowed the lawsuit to go forward. But Monday, the Supreme Court disagreed with the 9th Circuit, writing, “Qualified immunity shields an officer from suit when she makes a decision that, even if constitutionally deficient, reasonably misapprehends the law governing the circumstances she confronted.”
The second case involved a policeman in Xenia, Ohio, who allegedly threw Cheryl Lyons to the ground while investigating a domestic dispute between Lyons and her daughter. “Justices threw out a decision by the Cincinnati- based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that a jury should be allowed to consider if officer Matthew Foubert went too far,” according to AP. The court ruling was 8-0.
These cases did not involve criminal charges against the police, but civil suits that, in a trial, might have gone in favor of the police anyway.
It is disturbing to us that the Supreme Court has taken this civil check on potential police abuses away from citizens. In the first case, Brosseau released a statement on Monday in which she explained, “On the day I was forced to shoot Mr. Haugen, I believed he was an immediate threat to people nearby, including a little 3-year-old girl. I was doing everything in my power to stop him.”
But a jury should have been allowed to determine if she was right, or if the danger to the public actually came from her shooting of an unarmed man who committed a nonviolent crime.
The Supreme Court should have stayed with its own previous ruling from the 1985 Tennessee v. Garner case, which stipulated that “(deadly) force may not be used unless it is necessary to prevent the escape and the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others. … While it is not always clear just when minimal police interference becomes a seizure, there can be no question that apprehension by the use of deadly force is a seizure subject to the reasonableness requirement of the Fourth Amendment.”
Monday’s two decisions are “a precedent for when you can hold an officer liable in a deadly force situation,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional law professor at Duke University law school. “The issue is that there is clearly established law that the reasonable officer should know. I think any reasonable officer would know in these circumstances that it was inappropriate.”
It also is curious that even the court’s most liberal members, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, sided with the majority. “This is a court that is very protective of police officers,” Chemerinsky observed. “This decision is consistent with that. They weren’t saying the officer (in each case) was acting properly, but that under the circumstances shouldn’t be held liable.”
We hope the court revisits this issue soon and reverts to the more reasonable standards it set in the 1985 Garner case. Police, too, need clear standards of conduct to follow.