Qualified Immunity; Examining Statewide Legal & SCOTUS 2021 Ruling On Police Reform
Written By: Anton Sawyer
If there is one topic I wish I could stop writing about, it would be police reform. Given that these reforms will directly impact every American citizen due to their close proximity to law enforcement, they are something that needs constant vigilance. I was just more hopeful that with the proliferation of available news and videos "keeping police in check" would have forced the hands of those in charge to make the needed changes. Yet here we are with more bad reform, poor judicial review, and worst of all more enabling.
The need for the article today stems from events happening in the fall of 2021 which have been utterly catastrophic towards the “keeping police accountable” movement—both in a nationwide (SCOTUS), and statewide (Utah’s District Attorney proclamation) fashion. There have been two rulings handed down by the Supreme Court in October of 2021 which strike right at the heart of qualified immunity.
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Qualified immunity is what allows police officers absolution from lawsuits of property or other things that get damaged during police activity. Let’s say there’s a criminal on the loose who is evading police and that criminal busts through your front door, followed closely by law enforcement. They tackle him in your front room and your antique $3,000 vase gets busted in the process. Qualified immunity prevents you from suing the city for the cost because the need for catching the crook was more important. Defenders of qualified immunity say that it prevents frivolous lawsuits and allows police to do their jobs without fear of backlash.
Now let's discuss two court cases. When it comes to the aforementioned cases, one of them I agree with the SCOTUS ruling, the other I feel is a travesty.
The first case (Rivas-Villegas vs. Cortesluna) concerned Daniel Rivas-Villegas, a police officer in Union City, California, who responded to a 911 call from a 12-year-old girl who, along with her mother and 15-year-old sister, had barricaded themselves inside a room to hide from the mother's boyfriend, Ramon Cortesluna. Cortesulna was reportedly using a chainsaw to destroy things in the house. Before we go too much further, you read that right, a chainsaw. Though there was no chainsaw used, the mere fact that the police were going into a situation where they could have run into such an obstacle is nothing short of a recipe for disaster.
When officers arrived and confronted Cortesluna, they discovered he was in fact, carrying a knife. One of the officers fired two nonlethal beanbag rounds at Cortesluna, after which he followed police orders to lie down. Rivas-Villegas knelt on Cortesluna's back and held up his arms as another officer retrieved the knife. After the incident, Cortesluna sued the department over the use of excessive force.
In the resolution to this nothing punitive was done to the police officers. This is why the civil suit came about.
The facts of the case show that the officers used bean bags to subdue the suspect and did kneel on his upper back—but for eight seconds. His breathing wasn’t stopped, and the officer was off of Cortesluna in the same amount of time it takes for a professional bull roper to conduct his business. Interestingly enough, it was the details of this case that helped to show how egregious the second ruling by the Supreme Court is.
In the second case (City Of Tahlequah vs. Bond), three police officers in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, responded to an emergency call from a woman whose ex-husband, Dominic Rollice, was drunk and refusing to leave her home. The officers confronted Rollice in the garage, where he grabbed a hammer. The officers drew their guns and yelled for Rollice to drop the weapon. Instead, Rollice moved toward them and raised the hammer higher; two officers shot and killed him.
A lower court found that the Tahlequah officers had violated Rollice's Fourth Amendment rights when they "recklessly created the situation that led to the fatal shooting."
Let’s compare for a moment.
In one state, a set of cops show up at a home in which people are barricaded in their room because of someone threatening to level everyone and everything with a chainsaw. Law enforcement can take down the suspect—who was armed with a knife—by using non-lethal methods and nobody was hurt.
In another state, another set of cops show up at a home where a drunk man with a hammer is backed into a corner by two armed police officers who do use lethal methods and eventually shoot and kill the suspect.
Yet, both are said to be completely equal in their levels of force during the situation, and because of them being so indistinguishable both are legally entitled to qualified immunity. Did I also mention both of these verdicts were ruled 9-0 with NO dissenting opinions? Even Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Clarence Thomas—among the court's most liberal and most conservative members, respectively—who have previously criticized qualified immunity, said nothing.
The statewide event of note may not have the same level of implications when it comes to impacting people, but the level it emboldens law enforcement too is on another plane.
Utah’s District Attorney Proclamation
During the fall of 2021, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill (the DA for the largest county in the Beehive State) announced a new policy in a very bluntly made statement. “To those going forward who are going to engage in gun violence in the commission of a crime, you are put on notice,” Gill said. “Starting today, there will be no more plea bargains, and we will now throw the book at you.”
The new policy is something that the district attorney’s office, the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office, and the Salt Lake City Police Department have been “talking about for a while,” Gill added. He cited the 2020 Crime In Utah Report which showed an increase in homicides from 2019 to 2020. Two-thirds of those homicides involved firearms, which Gill said was the “most pressing” detail for officials. “Absent a legal obstacle, a gun crime charge will either be resolved by a guilty plea as charged to the offense, or a trial will be commenced on that gun charge,” Gill said. “So very simple, going forward—if you’re going to commit crime in Salt Lake County with the possession of a gun, in a violent crime, you will be aggressively prosecuted.”
The reason why Sim Gill and his stance on no more plea deals for gun violence is so utterly contemptible needs a little rewind into Gill’s recent history.
On August 23rd, 2019, a 31-year old man named Michael Chad Breinholt was shot while INSIDE of a Utah police department. The video is available online if you want to watch it (discretion advised), however, I'll give a quick summary.
While Breinholt was being restrained by handcuffs and two policemen in a West Valley City Police Department, he told one of the police officers he had a gun in his shoe. When the police eventually went to grab it, a scuffle ensued. From the officer’s responses, there was no immediacy in getting the weapon. Once the scuffle did ensue, Sergeant Tyler Longman can be seen walking in, drawing his weapon, putting it to the neck of Breinholt, and firing.
What’s truly chilling is hearing Sgt. Longman say, “you’re about to die, my friend,” waiting a moment, and then firing his weapon.
As of summer, 2021, there has been no movement on the case of Sgt. Longman. Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill will ultimately make the decision, but he has not indicated if or when this may occur. What is even more unsettling lies in the fact that in his career, this was Longman’s third officer-involved shooting of a suspect, where he was the shooter … and he’s been back on the streets for many, many months as of this publication.
I’ve written about the Supreme Court and how their rulings have untethered police from the law, among others in regards to the rulings which embolden law enforcement to do what they want with zero accountability, all while knowing the highest court in the law has their back. I know that this is a sickness in politics that has gone on longer than you or I have been alive, and the article today is just another sheet of examples to add to the list. I know that with the judiciary of America being a lifetime appointment situation, we can expect nothing short of these horrific abominations of reciprocal back-scratching when it comes to unlimited power to continue. I’m just hoping enough people can become educated on these intricacies and promote political leaders that will nominate a judge who is more concerned with accountability than playing favorites.
Eh, it probably isn’t going to happen. But at least I’ll be here pointing out that the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.
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