WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday sided with an Arizona police officer in a case testing the constitutional limits for the use of force, throwing out a lawsuit brought against him by a woman he shot four times in her driveway while she held a large kitchen knife.
Over the dissent of two liberal justices, the court overturned a 2016 lower court ruling that had allowed the civil rights lawsuit seeking at least $150,000 in damages from University of Arizona Police Department Corporal Andrew Kisela to proceed.
The wounded woman, Amy Hughes, had accused Kisela of using excessive force in the 2010 incident in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.
The court issued its decision at a time of intense focus on the issue of police use of force arising from a series of incidents around the country including shootings by officers of unarmed suspects. Protests erupted in California’s capital Sacramento after last month’s police shooting of an unarmed black man named Stephon Clark.
In the case decided on Monday, the court ruled in an unsigned opinion that Kisela was entitled to qualified immunity protecting him from the litigation because he did not violate any clearly established law.
In a dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that Kisela’s conduct was unreasonable and the court should not shield him from liability. Sotomayor criticized the court’s decision as another example of its “unflinching willingness” to reverse lower courts when they deny officers immunity. Fellow liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined Sotomayor in the dissent.
The decision sends the wrong signal to police, Sotomayor wrote. “It tells officers that they can shoot first and think later, and it tells the public that palpably unreasonable conduct will go unpunished,” Sotomayor added.
A trial judge initially threw out the lawsuit, concluding the officer’s use of force was reasonable. The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling, saying the record did not support Kisela’s perception that Hughes posed an immediate threat.
The 9th Circuit ruling stated that a jury might find that Hughes “had a constitutional right to walk down her driveway holding a knife without being shot.”
Three university police officers went to the off-campus Tucson home that Hughes shared with her friend Sharon Chadwick after receiving a call about a woman acting erratically and hacking a tree with a knife.
Chadwick said in an affidavit that prior to the shooting, Hughes had threatened to kill Chadwick’s dog Bunny with a knife over a $20 magazine subscription. Chadwick went outside to her car to retrieve money from her purse when Hughes followed her outside, still holding the knife, according to court records.
Chadwick said Hughes had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was taking medication, and that she sometimes acted inappropriately but was never actually violent.
The three officers arrived at the edge of the metal yard fence and drew their guns. Hughes did not respond to orders to drop the knife as she walked toward Chadwick, and Kisela opened fire, according to court records. Kisela told investigators he saw Hughes raise her knife, but the other officers said they did not.
Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham