Supreme Court Reverses 9th Circuit on Qualified Immunity (Again!)

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City of Escondido v. Emmons, 2019 (U.S. 2019)

It is a bit of a mystery: Why is the 9th Circuit more frequently chided and reversed by the Supreme Court than any other federal circuit, year after year? Why do 9th Circuit cases involving qualified immunity claims so often get sent back for not “getting it right?” It seems even the honorable justices of the United States Supreme Court are wondering. Earlier this month, the Court said it was “puzzling” when the 9th Circuit made another erroneous decision on qualified immunity and “offered no explanation for its decision” and “made no effort to explain” how the law prohibited the officer’s actions.

Police were called to an apartment for a domestic dispute between Maggie Emmons and her husband. Officers had recently dealt with another domestic dispute at the same address. While officers were establishing a perimeter and attempting a welfare check, Marty Emmons, the father of the woman involved, walked out of the residence. An officer near the door told Emmons to not close it, but Emmons pulled the door shut and pushed past the officer. The officer took Emmons to the ground, quickly and with no strikes or injury, and handcuffed him.

Citing a string of consistent and plain-spoken opinions, the Supreme Court reminded the 9th Circuit, “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.”

Emmons was arrested for resisting and delaying a police officer. He sued, alleging excessive force. The trial court granted summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. The court recognized the officers did not know whether Emmons was a domestic violence suspect and did not know if he was armed or dangerous. The trial court noted Emmons had not cited a single case suggesting precedent that the officers erred in taking him to the ground and handcuffing him. The 9th Circuit reversed, quipping “the right to be free of excessive force was clearly established at the time.” While true, what was missing was any analysis of whether the force was reasonable.

Citing a string of consistent and plain-spoken opinions, the Supreme Court reminded the 9th Circuit, “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.” The Court once again reversed the 9th Circuit, sharply noting the lower court “contravened those settled principles” of qualified immunity and the court “failed to properly analyze whether clearly established law barred” the officer from stopping and taking down Emmons in this manner as he exited the apartment. That, said the Supreme Court, “is a problem.”

Ken Wallentine

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over three decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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