Kisela v. Hughes

Decision Date02 April 2018
Docket NumberNo. 17–467.,17–467.
Citation138 S.Ct. 1148,200 L.Ed.2d 449
Parties Andrew KISELA v. Amy HUGHES.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court


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, 105 S.Ct. 1694, 85 L.Ed.2d 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, 105 S.Ct. 1694.

In Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396, 109 S.Ct. 1865, 104 L.Ed.2d 443 (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, 109 S.Ct. 1865.

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. ––––, ––––, 137 S.Ct. 548, 551, 196 L.Ed.2d 463 (2017) (per curiam ) (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, 125 S.Ct. 596, 160 L.Ed.2d 583 (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 ––––, 137 S.Ct., at 551 (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. ––––, ––––, 135 S.Ct. 1765, 1775–1776, 191 L.Ed.2d 856 (2015) (quoting Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 742, 131 S.Ct. 2074, 179 L.Ed.2d 1149 (2011) ); see also Brosseau, supra, at 198–199, 125 S.Ct. 596.

"[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. ––––, ––––, 136 S.Ct. 305, 308, 193 L.Ed.2d 255 (2015) (per curiam ) (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 ––––, 136 S.Ct., at 309 (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 unlawful. Id., at ––––, 136 S.Ct., at 312 (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 ––––, 137 S.Ct., at 552 (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. ––––, ––––, 134 S.Ct. 2012, 2023, 188 L.Ed.2d 1056 (2014). 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...

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