U.S. Supreme Court holds “clearly establish” prong of qualified immunity defense must not be defined with a high degree of generality
City of Escondido v Emmons, 17-1660 (U.S. January 7, 2019)
City of Escondido police received a domestic violence 911 call from Maggie Emmons. Officer Jake Houchin responded to the scene and reported Emmons had sustained injuries caused by her husband. The officers arrested her husband. Several weeks later, another domestic violence call was placed, but this time it was called in by the mother of Emmon’s roommate, Douglas (who was not present at the apartment). Officer Houchin again responded. The body cameras revealed that when trying to gain entry, a man in the apartment also told Emmons to back away from the window and not let the officers in. Shortly afterward, a man exited the apartment and tried to move past the officers. Officer Craig stopped the man, took him quickly to the ground and handcuffed him. The video shows that the man was not in any visible or audible pain as a result of the takedown or while on the ground. He was arrested for a misdemeanor offense of resisting and delaying a police officer. The man turned out to be Emmons’s father, who sued for wrongful arrest. The officers filed for qualified immunity, which the trial court granted but the U.S. 9th Circuit reversed.
The U.S. Supreme Court broke apart the 9th Circuit’s analysis and questioned the lack of reasoning within the opinion. The Ninth Circuit’s entire relevant analysis was simply, “The right to be free of excessive force was clearly established at the time of the events in question.” The Supreme Court held that “with respect to Sergeant Toth, the Ninth Circuit offered no explanation for its decision. The court’s unexplained reinstatement of the excessive force claim against Sergeant Toth was erroneous—and quite puzzling in light of the District Court’s conclusion that ‘only Defendant Craig was involved in the excessive force claim’ and that Emmons ‘fail[ed] to identify contrary evidence.’” The 9th Circuit erred, as the Supreme Court has repeatedly told courts the clearly established right must be defined with specificity. Courts may not define clearly established law at a high level of generality. “In this case, the Court of Appeals contravened those settled principles. The Court of Appeals should have asked whether clearly established law prohibited the officers from stopping and taking down a man in these circumstances.” The opinion is reversed and remanded for further analysis.
If you would like to read this opinion, click here. Per Curiam opinion.