By Gloria J. Browne-Marshall
“Why did you shoot me?” Amy Hughes asked as she lay bleeding from four bullets wounds. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of the officer who shot her and expanded police immunity. Rebuked by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, she wrote, “There is nothing right or just under the law about this.”
Amy Hughes was holding a kitchen knife. She was calmly standing in her backyard about six feet from her roommate, Sharon Chadwick. It was May 2010, in Tuscan, AZ. Three police officers arrived triggered by a 911 call and a bystander who told them an erratic woman had a knife. Then, officers see Hughes through a chain link fence and tell her to drop the knife. Within seconds of giving that command, Officer Andrew Kisela fired four shots wounding Hughes. She sued Kisela.
The Supreme Court ruled this shooting was reasonable. Qualified immunity protects officers from lawsuits if their conduct is deemed reasonable. Unless an officer’s conduct is unlawful or violates clearly established law, they cannot be held liable for wounding or killing a civilian. Qualified immunity is needed because government officials could not do their daily jobs effectively if they lived in fear of lawsuits. However, this protection has limits. When the Supreme Court found that Kisela’s conduct was immune from Hughes’ lawsuit civil rights groups complained that the Court had gone too far to protect police.
There were three officers at the scene. Alex Garcia and Lindsay Kunz did not fire their weapons. They believed the situation could be handled through verbal communication. Garcia testified that Hughes may not have even heard the command to drop her knife. Chadwick asked the officers to “take it easy” and never feared for her life. Yet, less than a minute after arriving at the scence, Kisela fired four shots. After the shooting, he discovered Hughes had a history of mental illness and Hughes had threatened the dog, not Chadwick. The Supreme Court has not ruled on how police officers are to confront suspects with mental illness.
In the Tennessee case involving a Black teenager shot in the back by police, the Supreme Court said officers must have “probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others.” If force is excessive then it violates the Fourth Amendment. Due to the nature of events, making split-second judgments under “tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving” circumstances, the Court says it leans toward the officer’s view of whether force was necessary, regularly protecting officers under qualified immunity.
Justice Sotomayor, a former prosecutor, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, dissented. They believe Kisela’s conduct was not entitled to immunity. Reviewing the facts, “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,” said Justice Sotomayor. “If this account of Kisela’s conduct sounds unreasonable, that is because it was.” Sotomayor then directly chastised the Court’s decision. “It sends a message to police and the public that “they can shoot first and think later, and tells the public that palpably unreasonable conduct will go unpunished.” Every year, hundreds of armed and unarmed civilians are killed or wounded by police officers. Amy Hughes was lucky to survive to ask – why did you shoot me?
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall is a legal correspondent covering the U.S. Supreme Court, a professor, and the author of the forthcoming book “She Took Justice” (City Lights).