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City of Escondido v. Emmons: Right to be free from excessive force too general to deny qualified immunity

Police responded to a possible domestic violence incident at an apartment.  They knocked on the door but no one answered.  They spoke to a woman in the apartment through a window and tried to get her to open the door so they could conduct a welfare check.  A man told her not to open the door.

The Ninth Circuit defined the right to be free from excessive force too generally to deny an officer qualified immunity, the Supreme Court ruled January 7 in City of Escondido v. Emmons.
 
Police responded to a possible domestic violence incident at an apartment.  They knocked on the door but no one answered.  They spoke to a woman in the apartment through a window and tried to get her to open the door so they could conduct a welfare check.  A man told her not to open the door.
 
A few minutes later, a man opened the door and came outside.  An officer told the man not to close the door, but the man closed the door and pushed past the officer.  The officer then took the man to the ground, handcuffed him, and arrested him resisting and delaying a police officer.
 
The man brought a §1983 suit against the officer, alleging a Fourth Amendment violation for use of excessive force.
 
The district court granted summary judgment for the officer on grounds that the law did not clearly establish that the officer could not take down an arrestee in these circumstances.
 
But the Ninth Circuit reversed on grounds that the man had the “right to be free of excessive force.”
 
The Supreme Court, in a per curiam opinion, reversed the Ninth 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 said.  But “under our cases, the clearly established right must be defined with specificity.”
 
 “This Court has repeatedly told courts … not to define clearly established law at a high level of generality.”
 
 “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,” the Court said.
 
 “The Court of Appeals should have asked whether clearly established law prohibited the officers from stopping and taking down a man in these circumstances,” the Court said.  “Instead, the Court of Appeals defined the clearly established right at a high level of generality by saying only that the ‘right to be free from excessive force' was clearly established.”
 
The Court remanded the case to the Ninth Circuit for reexamination under the proper standard.
 

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