The Supreme Court sided Monday with police officers in two separate disputes over cases involving qualified immunity, which protects officers from civil lawsuits so long as they acted reasonably.
In one dispute involving an ex-husband who was intoxicated in his former wife’s garage, the court unanimously said officers acted within the law when they shot and killed the man.
He had obtained a hammer from the back of the garage and approached officers in a manner suggesting he was going to swing or throw it at them.
The court said in an unsigned opinion the lower court did not present any evidence of a violation of constitutional rights when it denied the officers qualified immunity after the deceased man’s estate sued for wrongful death.
“The officers were thus entitled to qualified immunity,” the justices wrote, reversing the lower court.
In another case, the justices sided with police after a man was shot by a beanbag shotgun, a way to subdue but not kill a suspect. The police had received a call from the man’s girlfriend’s daughters, who alleged he was trying to break into their room.
The man also claimed the officer put this knee on his back while handcuffing him, arguing that was excessive use of force.
The lower court had ruled against the officers, noting that when the man was face down and being handcuffed, the officer used excessive force with his knee.
In an unsigned opinion, the high court reversed the lower court’s finding. It reasoned that the officer placed his knee on the man’s back for only eight seconds and it was on the side where the man had a knife in his pocket.
The justices said the officer had no reason to believe he was acting in an unlawful manner and was thus entitled to qualified immunity.
Qualified immunity has been a sticking point for progressives in their criminal justice fight, most recently sparked by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year.
Liberal activists and Democratic lawmakers have insisted any police reform legislation should end qualified immunity for officers.