SCOTUS: In QI in excessive force cases, a “clearly established” right needs to be defined with specificity

In confronting qualified immunity in excessive force cases, a “clearly established” right needs to be defined with specificity. City of Escondido v. Emmons, 17-1660 (U.S. Jan. 7, 2019) (per curiam) [pdf at 27]:

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.” Kisela, 584 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 4) (internal quotation marks omitted). That is particularly important in excessive force cases, as we have explained:

“Specificity 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. …

. . .

The Court of Appeals should have asked whether clearly established law prohibited the officers from stopping and taking down a man in these circumstances. 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 of excessive force” was clearly established. With the right defined at that high level of generality, the Court of Appeals then denied qualified immunity to the officers and remanded the case for trial. 716 Fed. Appx., at 726.

Under our precedents, the Court of Appeals’ formulation of the clearly established right was far too general. To be sure, the Court of Appeals cited the Gravelet-Blondin case from that Circuit, which described a right to be “free from the application of non-trivial force for engaging in mere
passive resistance ….” 728 F. 3d, at 1093. Assuming without deciding that a court of appeals decision may constitute clearly established law for purposes of qualified immunity, see City and County of San Francisco v. Sheehan, 575 U. S. ___, ___ (2015), the Ninth Circuit’s Gravelet-Blondin case law involved police force against individuals engaged in passive resistance. The Court of Appeals made no effort to explain how that case law prohibited Officer Craig’s actions in this case. That is a problem under our precedents: ….

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