Supreme Court of the United States
Andrew Kisela v. Amy Hughes
Decided April 2, 2018 – 138 S. Ct. 1148
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. 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.”
Hughes sued Kisela, 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. Kisela then filed a petition for certiorari in this Court. That petition is now granted.
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.” “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.” [EMPHASIS ADDED BY EDITOR]
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.” “In other words, immunity protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” This Court has “‘repeatedly told courts—and the Ninth Circuit in particular—not to define clearly established law at a high level of generality.’”
“[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.” 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. 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.
“Of course, general statements of the law are not inherently incapable of giving fair and clear warning to officers.” But the general rules  “do not by themselves create clearly established law outside an ‘obvious case.’” 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.” 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.
[T]he 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.
Officer Andrew Kisela shot Amy Hughes while she was speaking with her roommate, Sharon Chadwick, outside of their home. The record, properly construed at this stage, shows that at the time of the shooting: Hughes stood stationary about six feet away from Chadwick, appeared “composed and content” and held a kitchen knife down at her side with the blade facing away from Chadwick. Hughes was nowhere near the officers, had committed no illegal act, was suspected of no crime, and did not raise the knife in the direction of Chadwick or anyone else. Faced with these facts, the two other responding officers held their fire, and one testified that he “wanted to continue trying verbal command[s] and see if that would work.” But not Kisela. He thought it necessary to use deadly force, and so, without giving a warning that he would open fire, he shot Hughes four times, leaving her seriously injured.
If this account of Kisela’s conduct sounds unreasonable, that is because it was. And yet, the Court today insulates that conduct from liability under the doctrine of qualified immunity, holding that Kisela violated no “clearly established” law. I disagree. Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Hughes, as the Court must at summary judgment, a jury could find that Kisela violated Hughes’ clearly established Fourth Amendment rights by needlessly resorting to lethal force. In holding otherwise, the Court misapprehends the facts and misapplies the law, effectively treating qualified immunity as an absolute shield. I therefore respectfully dissent.
This case arrives at our doorstep on summary judgment, so we must “view the evidence … in the light most favorable to” Hughes, the nonmovant, “with respect to the central facts of this case.” The majority purports to honor this well-settled principle, but its efforts fall short. Although the majority sets forth most of the relevant events that transpired, it conspicuously omits several critical facts and draws premature inferences that bear on the qualified-immunity inquiry. Those errors are fatal to its analysis, because properly construing all of the facts in the light most favorable to Hughes, and drawing all inferences in her favor, a jury could find that the following events occurred on the day of Hughes’ encounter with the Tucson police.
On May 21, 2010, Kisela and Officer-in-Training Alex Garcia received a “‘check welfare’” call about a woman chopping away at a tree with a knife. They responded to the scene, where they were informed by the person who had placed the call (not Chadwick) that the woman with the knife had been acting “erratically.” A third officer, Lindsay Kunz, later joined the scene. The officers observed Hughes, who matched the description given to the officers of the woman alleged to have been cutting the tree, emerge from a house with a kitchen knife in her hand. Hughes exited the front door and approached Chadwick, who was standing outside in the driveway.
Hughes then stopped about six feet from Chadwick, holding the kitchen knife down at her side with the blade pointed away from Chadwick. Hughes and Chadwick conversed with one another; Hughes appeared “composed and content,” and did not look angry. At no point during this exchange did Hughes raise the kitchen knife or verbally threaten to harm Chadwick or the officers. Chadwick later averred that, during the incident, she was never in fear of Hughes and “was not the least bit threatened by the fact that [Hughes] had a knife in her hand” and that Hughes “never acted in a threatening manner.” The officers did not observe Hughes commit any crime, nor was Hughes suspected of committing one.
Nevertheless, the officers hastily drew their guns and ordered Hughes to drop the knife. The officers gave that order twice, but the commands came “in quick succession.” The evidence in the record suggests that Hughes may not have heard or understood the officers’ commands and may not have been aware of the officers’ presence at all. Although the officers were in uniform, they never verbally identified themselves as law enforcement officers.
Kisela did not wait for Hughes to register, much less respond to, the officers’ rushed commands. Instead, Kisela immediately and unilaterally escalated the situation. Without giving any advance warning that he would shoot, and without attempting less dangerous methods to deescalate the situation, he dropped to the ground and shot four times at Hughes (who was stationary) through a chain-link fence. After being shot, Hughes fell to the ground, screaming and bleeding from her wounds. She looked at the officers and asked, “‘Why’d you shoot me?’” Hughes was immediately transported to the hospital, where she required treatment for her injuries. Kisela alone resorted to deadly force in this case. Confronted with the same circumstances as Kisela, neither of his fellow officers took that drastic measure.
***Because Kisela plainly lacked any legitimate interest justifying the use of deadly force against a woman who posed no objective threat of harm to officers or others, had committed no crime, and appeared calm and collected during the police encounter, he was not entitled to qualified immunity.
In sum, precedent existing at the time of the shooting clearly established the unconstitutionality of Kisela’s conduct. The majority’s decision, no matter how much it says otherwise, ultimately rests on a faulty premise: that those cases are not identical to this one. But that is not the law, for our cases have never required a factually identical case to satisfy the “clearly established” standard. It is enough that governing law places “the constitutionality of the officer’s conduct beyond debate.” Because, taking the facts in the light most favorable to Hughes, it is “beyond debate” that Kisela’s use of deadly force was objectively unreasonable, he was not entitled to summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity.
This unwarranted summary reversal is symptomatic of “a disturbing trend regarding the use of this Court’s resources” in qualified-immunity cases. As I have previously noted, this Court routinely displays an unflinching willingness “to summarily reverse courts for wrongly denying officers the protection of qualified immunity” but “rarely intervene[s] where courts wrongly afford officers the benefit of qualified immunity in these same cases.” Such a one-sided approach to qualified immunity transforms the doctrine into an absolute shield for law enforcement officers, gutting the deterrent effect of the Fourth Amendment.
The majority today exacerbates that troubling asymmetry. Its decision is not just wrong on the law; it also sends an alarming signal to law enforcement officers and the public. It tells officers that they can shoot first and think later, and it tells the public that palpably unreasonable conduct will go unpunished. Because there is nothing right or just under the law about this, I respectfully dissent.
Notes, Comments, and Questions
Our next case involves serious violations of the Court’s rule set forth in Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), which requires that prosecutors provide material exculpatory evidence in their possession to the defense. Although this book does not explore the Brady rule, students should recognize its importance to avoiding wrongful convictions. Our next case illustrates the impediments in the path of a defendant who seeks monetary damages after winning release from prison by proving a Brady violation.
A bit of background will help students understand the plaintiff’s cause of action. Because prosecutors (much like judges) normally enjoy absolute immunity from Section 1983 liability for actions taken during and in preparation for trial, see Buckley v. Fitzsimmons, 509 U.S. 259 (1993), plaintiff John Thompson alleged that district attorney Harry Connick failed to train his prosecutors adequately about their duty under Brady. to produce evidence. Only especially egregious failures to train can justify civil liability.