Kisela v. Hughes,
584 U.S. ___ (2018)

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Justia Opinion Summary

Kisela, a Tucson police officer, shot Hughes less than a minute after arriving, with other officers, at the scene where a woman had been reported to 911 as hacking a tree with a knife and acting erratically. When Kisela fired, Hughes was holding a large kitchen knife, had taken steps toward nearby woman (her roommate), and had refused to drop the knife after at least two commands to do so. Hughes matched the description given by the 911 caller. Her injuries were not life-threatening. All of the officers later said that they subjectively believed Hughes was a threat to her roommate. Hughes had a history of mental illness. Her roommate said that she did not feel endangered. Hughes sued Kisela, alleging excessive force, 42 U.S.C. 1983. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the officer, reversing the Ninth Circuit. Even assuming a Fourth Amendment violation occurred, which “is not at all evident,” Kisela was entitled to qualified immunity. Although the officers were in no apparent danger, Kisela believed Hughes was a threat to her roommate. Kisela had mere seconds to assess the potential danger and was separated from the women by a chain-link fence. This is "far from an obvious case" in which any competent officer would have known that shooting Hughes would violate the Fourth Amendment; the most analogous Ninth Circuit precedent favors Kisela. A reasonable officer is not required to foresee judicial decisions that do not yet exist in instances where the requirements of the Fourth Amendment are far from obvious.

  • Dissent (Sonia Sotomayor)  | 
  • Per Curiam

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

ANDREW KISELA v. AMY HUGHES

on petition for writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit

No. 17–467. Decided April 2, 2018

Per Curiam.

Petitioner Andrew Kisela, a police officer in Tucson, Arizona, shot respondent Amy Hughes. Kisela and two other officers had arrived on the scene after hearing a police radio report that a woman was engaging in erratic behavior with a knife. They had been there but a few minutes, perhaps just a minute. When Kisela fired, Hughes was holding a large kitchen knife, had taken steps toward another woman standing nearby, and had refused to drop the knife after at least two commands to do so. The question is whether at the time of the shooting Kisela’s actions violated clearly established law.

The record, viewed in the light most favorable to Hughes, shows the following. In May 2010, somebody in Hughes’ neighborhood called 911 to report that a woman was hacking a tree with a kitchen knife. Kisela and another police officer, Alex Garcia, heard about the report over the radio in their patrol car and responded. A few minutes later the person who had called 911 flagged down the officers; gave them a description of the woman with the knife; and told them the woman had been acting erratically. About the same time, a third police officer, Lindsay Kunz, arrived on her bicycle.

Garcia spotted a woman, later identified as Sharon Chadwick, standing next to a car in the driveway of a nearby house. A chain-link fence with a locked gate separated Chadwick from the officers. The officers then saw another woman, Hughes, emerge from the house carrying a large knife at her side. Hughes matched the description of the woman who had been seen hacking a tree. Hughes walked toward Chadwick and stopped no more than six feet from her.

All three officers drew their guns. At least twice they told Hughes to drop the knife. Viewing the record in the light most favorable to Hughes, Chadwick said “take it easy” to both Hughes and the officers. Hughes appeared calm, but she did not acknowledge the officers’ presence or drop the knife. The top bar of the chain-link fence blocked Kisela’s line of fire, so he dropped to the ground and shot Hughes four times through the fence. Then the officers jumped the fence, handcuffed Hughes, and called paramedics, who transported her to a hospital. There she was treated for non-life-threatening injuries. Less than a minute had transpired from the moment the officers saw Chadwick to the moment Kisela fired shots.

All three of the officers later said that at the time of the shooting they subjectively believed Hughes to be a threat to Chadwick. After the shooting, the officers discovered that Chadwick and Hughes were roommates, that Hughes had a history of mental illness, and that Hughes had been upset with Chadwick over a $20 debt. In an affidavit produced during discovery, Chadwick said that a few minutes before the shooting her boyfriend had told her Hughes was threatening to kill Chadwick’s dog, named Bunny. Chadwick “came home to find” Hughes “somewhat distressed,” and Hughes was in the house holding Bunny “in one hand and a kitchen knife in the other.” Hughes asked Chadwick if she “wanted [her] to use the knife on the dog.” The officers knew none of this, though. Chadwick went outside to get $20 from her car, which is when the officers first saw her. In her affidavit Chadwick said that she did not feel endangered at any time. Ibid. Based on her experience as Hughes’ roommate, Chadwick stated that Hughes “occasionally has episodes in which she acts inappropriately,” but “she is only seeking attention.” 2 Record 108.

Hughes sued Kisela under Rev. Stat. §1979, 42 U. S. C. §1983, alleging that Kisela had used excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The District Court granted summary judgment to Kisela, but the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed. 862 F. 3d 775 (2016).

The Court of Appeals first held that the record, viewed in the light most favorable to Hughes, was sufficient to demonstrate that Kisela violated the Fourth Amendment. See id., at 782. The court next held that the violation was clearly established because, in its view, the constitutional violation was obvious and because of Circuit precedent that the court perceived to be analogous. Id., at 785. Kisela filed a petition for rehearing en banc. Over the dissent of seven judges, the Court of Appeals denied it. Kisela then filed a petition for certiorari in this Court. That petition is now granted.

In one of the first cases on this general subject, Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U. S. 1 (1985) , the Court addressed the constitutionality of the police using force that can be deadly. There, the Court held that “[w]here the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others, it is not constitutionally unreasonable to prevent escape by using deadly force.” Id., at 11.

In Graham v. Connor, 490 U. S. 386, 396 (1989) , the Court held that the question whether an officer has used excessive force “requires careful attention to the facts and circumstances of each particular case, including the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.” “The ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” Ibid. And “[t]he calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments—in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving—about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.” Id., at 396–397.

Here, the Court need not, and does not, decide whether Kisela violated the Fourth Amendment when he used deadly force against Hughes. For even assuming a Fourth Amendment violation occurred—a proposition that is not at all evident—on these facts Kisela was at least entitled to qualified immunity.

“Qualified immunity attaches when an official’s conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” White v. Pauly, 580 U. S. ___, ___ (2017) (per curiam) (slip op., at 6) (alterations and internal quotation marks omitted). “Because the focus is on whether the officer had fair notice that her conduct was unlawful, reasonableness is judged against the backdrop of the law at the time of the conduct.” Brosseau v. Haugen, 543 U. S. 194, 198 (2004) (per curiam).

Although “this Court’s caselaw does not require a case directly on point for a right to be clearly established, existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate.” White, 580 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 6) (internal quotation marks omitted). “In other words, immunity protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” Ibid. (internal quotation marks omitted). This Court has “ ‘repeatedly told courts—and the Ninth Circuit in particular—not to define clearly established law at a high level of generality.’ ” City and County of San Francisco v. Sheehan, 575 U. S. ___, ___ (2015) (slip op., at 13) (quoting Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U. S. 731, 742 (2011) ); see also Brosseau, supra, at 198–199.

“[S]pecificity is especially important in the Fourth Amendment context, where the Court has recognized that it is sometimes difficult for an officer to determine how the relevant legal doctrine, here excessive force, will apply to the factual situation the officer confronts.” Mullenix v. Luna, 577 U. S. ___, ___ (2015) (per curiam) (slip op., at 5) (internal quotation marks omitted). Use of excessive force is an area of the law “in which the result depends very much on the facts of each case,” and thus police officers are entitled to qualified immunity unless existing precedent “squarely governs” the specific facts at issue. Id., at ___ (slip op., at 6) (internal quotation marks omitted and emphasis deleted). Precedent involving similar facts can help move a case beyond the otherwise “hazy border between excessive and acceptable force” and thereby provide an officer notice that a specific use of force is unlaw- ful. Id., at ___ (slip op., at 12) (internal quotation marks omitted).

“Of course, general statements of the law are not inherently incapable of giving fair and clear warning to officers.” White, 580 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 7) (internal quotation marks omitted). But the general rules set forth in “Garner and Graham do not by themselves create clearly established law outside an ‘obvious case.’ ” Ibid. Where constitutional guidelines seem inapplicable or too remote, it does not suffice for a court simply to state that an officer may not use unreasonable and excessive force, deny qualified immunity, and then remit the case for a trial on the question of reasonableness. An officer “cannot be said to have violated a clearly established right unless the right’s contours were sufficiently definite that any reasonable official in the defendant’s shoes would have understood that he was violating it.” Plumhoff v. Rickard, 572 U. S. ___, ___ (2014) (slip op., at 12). That is a necessary part of the qualified-immunity standard, and it is a part of the standard that the Court of Appeals here failed to implement in a correct way.

Kisela says he shot Hughes because, although the officers themselves were in no apparent danger, he believed she was a threat to Chadwick. Kisela had mere seconds to assess the potential danger to Chadwick. He was confronted with a woman who had just been seen hacking a tree with a large kitchen knife and whose behavior was erratic enough to cause a concerned bystander to call 911 and then flag down Kisela and Garcia. Kisela was separated from Hughes and Chadwick by a chain-link fence; Hughes had moved to within a few feet of Chadwick; and she failed to acknowledge at least two commands to drop the knife. Those commands were loud enough that Chadwick, who was standing next to Hughes, heard them. This is far from an obvious case in which any competent officer would have known that shooting Hughes to protect Chadwick would violate the Fourth Amendment.

The Court of Appeals made additional errors in concluding that its own precedent clearly established that Kisela used excessive force. To begin with, “even if a controlling circuit precedent could constitute clearly established law in these circumstances, it does not do so here.” Sheehan, supra, at ___ (slip op., at 13). In fact, the most analogous Circuit precedent favors Kisela. See Blanford v. Sacramento County, 406 F. 3d 1110 (CA9 2005). In Blanford, the police responded to a report that a man was walking through a residential neighborhood carrying a sword and acting in an erratic manner. Id., at 1112. There, as here, the police shot the man after he refused their commands to drop his weapon (there, as here, the man might not have heard the commands). Id., at 1113. There, as here, the police believed (perhaps mistakenly), that the man posed an immediate threat to others. Ibid. There, the Court of Appeals determined that the use of deadly force did not violate the Fourth Amendment. Id., at 1119. Based on that decision, a reasonable officer could have believed the same thing was true in the instant case.

In contrast, not one of the decisions relied on by the Court of Appeals—Deorle v. Rutherford, 272 F. 3d 1272 (CA9 2001), Glenn v. Washington County, 673 F. 3d 864 (CA9 2011), and Harris v. Roderick, 126 F. 3d 1189 (CA9 1997)—supports denying Kisela qualified immunity. As for Deorle, this Court has already instructed the Court of Appeals not to read its decision in that case too broadly in deciding whether a new set of facts is governed by clearly established law. Sheehan, 572 U. S., at ___–___ (slip op., at 13–14). Deorle involved a police officer who shot an unarmed man in the face, without warning, even though the officer had a clear line of retreat; there were no bystanders nearby; the man had been “physically compliant and generally followed all the officers’ instructions”; and he had been under police observation for roughly 40 minutes. 272 F. 3d, at 1276, 1281–1282. In this case, by contrast, Hughes was armed with a large knife; was within striking distance of Chadwick; ignored the officers’ orders to drop the weapon; and the situation unfolded in less than a minute. “Whatever the merits of the decision in Deorle, the differences between that case and the case before us leap from the page.” Sheehan, supra, at ___ (slip op., at 14).

Glenn, which the panel described as “[t]he most analogous Ninth Circuit case,” 862 F. 3d, at 783, was decided after the shooting at issue here. Thus, Glenn “could not have given fair notice to [Kisela]” because a reasonable officer is not required to foresee judicial decisions that do not yet exist in instances where the requirements of the Fourth Amendment are far from obvious. Brosseau, 543 U. S., at 200, n. 4. Glenn was therefore “of no use in the clearly established inquiry.” Brosseau, supra, at 200, n. 4. Other judges brought this mistaken or misleading citation to the panel’s attention while Kisela’s petition for rehearing en banc was pending before the Court of Appeals. 862 F.3d, at 795, n. 2 (Ikuta, J., dissenting from denial of rehearing en banc). The panel then amended its opinion, but nevertheless still attempted to “rely on Glenn as illustrative, not as indicative of the clearly established law in 2010.” Id., at 784, n. 2 (majority opinion). The panel failed to explain the difference between “illustrative” and “indicative” precedent, and none is apparent.

The amended opinion also asserted, for the first time and without explanation, that the Court of Appeals’ decision in Harris clearly established that the shooting here was unconstitutional. Id., at 785. The new mention of Harris replaced a reference in the panel’s first opinion to Glenn—the case that postdated the shooting at issue here. Compare 841 F. 3d 1081, 1090 (CA9 2016) (“As indicated by Glenn and Deorle, . . . that right was clearly established”), with 862 F. 3d, at 785 (“As indicated by Deorle and Harris, . . . that right was clearly established”).

The panel’s reliance on Harris “does not pass the straight-face test.” 862 F. 3d, at 797 (opinion of Ikuta, J.). In Harris, the Court of Appeals determined that an FBI sniper, who was positioned safely on a hilltop, used excessive force when he shot a man in the back while the man was retreating to a cabin during what has been referred to as the Ruby Ridge standoff. 126 F. 3d, at 1202–1203. Suffice it to say, a reasonable police officer could miss the connection between the situation confronting the sniper at Ruby Ridge and the situation confronting Kisela in Hughes’ front yard.

For these reasons, the petition for certiorari is granted; the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed; and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

Primary Holding

Officer is entitled to qualified immunity for the non-fatal shooting of a woman wielding a knife.

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