Kisela v. Hughes, 584 U.S. ___, 138 S. Ct. 1148 (Apr. 2, 2018)

In a per curiam opinion the Court held that a Tucson, Arizona police officer was entitled to qualified immunity with respect to his non-fatal shooting of Amy Hughes. Kisela and officer Garcia responded to a police radio report that a woman was hacking a tree with a kitchen knife. Minutes later, they were flagged down by the person who called 911; that person gave a description of the woman with the knife and said she was behaving erratically. About this time another officer arrived at the scene. Garcia saw a woman, later identified as Sharon Chadwick, standing near a car. A chain link fence was between Chadwick and the officers. The officers saw Hughes, who matched the description that had been provided, exit a house carrying a large knife. Hughes walked toward Chadwick and stopped no more than six feet from her. All three officers drew their guns. At least twice they told Hughes to drop the knife. She did not do so. Kisela shot Hughes four times. All three of the officers later said that at the time they believed Hughes to be a threat to Chadwick. The Court of Appeals held that the record, viewed in the light most favorable to Hughes, was sufficient to demonstrate that Kisela violated the Fourth Amendment. That court also held that the violation was clearly established because, in its view, the constitutional violation was obvious and because of Circuit precedent that the court perceived to be analogous. The Supreme Court granted review and reversed. The Court determined that it need not decide whether Kisela violated the Fourth Amendment when he used deadly force against Hughes, because even assuming a Fourth Amendment violation occurred—a proposition the Court found “not at all evident”—Kisela was at least entitled to qualified immunity. 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 stated:

Kisela says he shot Hughes because, although the officers themselves were in no apparent danger, he believed she was a threat to Chadwick. Kisela had mere seconds to assess the potential danger to Chadwick. He was confronted with a woman who had just been seen hacking a tree with a large kitchen knife and whose behavior was erratic enough to cause a concerned bystander to call 911 and then flag down Kisela and Garcia. Kisela was separated from Hughes and Chadwick by a chain-link fence; Hughes had moved to within a few feet of Chadwick; and she failed to acknowledge at least two commands to drop the knife. Those commands were loud enough that Chadwick, who was standing next to Hughes, heard them. This is far from an obvious case in which any competent officer would have known that shooting Hughes to protect Chadwick would violate the Fourth Amendment.

Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg dissented.

There was dissenting opinion in this case.