Friday, April 06, 2018

US "qualified immunity" ruling is just storing up trouble for the future

In a court case which is really not going to help racial relations in America, the Supreme Court has effectively upheld the right of police to shoot first and ask questions later.
The court has voted to dismiss a claim of excessive force brought by a survivor of a police shooting in Arizona. The case involves one of the police officers who were called to deal with a woman who was reportedly hacking at a tree with a knife, back in 2010. When the police arrived, the woman came out of her house with the knife held at her side, and did not raise the knife either towards the police officers or anyone else, although she did not respond to police commands to drop it (it is not clear whether she even heard these commands). Police body cameras clearly show that she was not behaving erratically and not verbally or physically threatening anybody. No crime was reported, and the woman was not actually charged with any offense. Nevertheless, one of the three officers saw fit to open fire no less than four times, severely injuring but not killing the woman.
After recovering, the woman brought an excessive force suit against the officer who shot her, but a majority of the judges have now ruled that police officers are entitled to immunity in such circumstances unless previous cases tell them that a specific use of force is unlawful, a situation known in the trade as "qualified immunity".
This is a remarkably mealy-mouthed and unhelpful ruling, and appears specifically designed to bury this particular case without providing any useful precedent for the future. The judgement is described as unsigned and did not come with a full briefing and oral argument, which usually means that the voting was not even close. However, two of the judges, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Justice Sonia Sotomayor (both female and Democrats, go figure), have come out publicly saying that the ruling is a troubling one and that justice has not been well served by it.
As far as I know, the woman was white, as was the offending police officer. But you can see how this will play out with Black Lives Matter supporters, coming as it does amid a flurry of police shootings of unarmed black people.

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