Ninth Circuit Upholds Qualified Immunity in Section 1983 Excessive Force Case

By editor on January 26, 2024

In a recent decision, Waid v. County of Lyon, 87 F4th 383 (9th Cir. 2023), a Ninth Circuit panel affirmed a lower court’s ruling granting qualified immunity on Section 1983 claims to two officers who fatally shot a suspect when responding to a domestic violence call.

In this case, two Lyon County police officers responded to a 911 call, where the caller asked for assistance concerning a domestic violence incident. After arriving and knocking on the front door, distressed children exited and advised officers that their parents were fighting, their mother needed an ambulance because she was being “thrown around” by the decedent (Robert Anderson), and they believed a BB gun was the only weapon inside the home. After entering the residence, officers encountered Anderson, who was agitated and at the end of a hallway. Officers drew their weapons and ordered Anderson to the ground; however, Anderson ignored the commands and ran down the short hallway toward the officers. Both officers fired a total of five rounds at Anderson, who fell to the ground and ultimately died from his injuries.

On appeal from the district court decision to grant qualified immunity on motion for summary judgment on the Section 1983 claims, the Ninth Circuit upheld qualified immunity, ruling that the officers’ conduct did not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights. The Court stated that a right is clearly established when it is “sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.” Reichle v. Howards, 566 U.S. 658, 664 (2012). The Court recognized that Plaintiffs bear the burden of showing either why their case is obvious under existing general principles or, more commonly, show specific cases that control or reflect a consensus of non-binding authorities in similar situations. (quoting Hopson v. Alexander, 71 F.4th 692, 698 (9th Cir. 2023)).

First, the Court concluded that the facts did not show an obvious violation of Anderson’s constitutional rights, even viewing the facts in plaintiffs’ favor. Noting that the “obvious violation” exception (to the specific case requirement) is especially problematic in the Fourth-Amendment context (because a categorical statement that conduct obviously violates the Fourth Amendment “is particularly hard to make when officers encounter suspects every day in never-before-seen ways,” including “countless confrontations … that yield endless permutations of outcomes and responses.”) Sharp v. County of Orange, 871 F.3d 901, 912 (9th Cir. 2017), the Court reiterated that Fourth Amendment violations are required to be “beyond debate” to be considered obvious in a qualified immunity context. Waid, supra, at 388.

The Court noted that the facts here did not rise to the level of an obvious violation (even assuming Anderson was unarmed) and cited instances where other courts had found facts extreme enough to deem that the violation was obvious – i.e. Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 734–35 (2002) (a prison inmate was punished by being chained to a “hitching post” for seven hours, shirtless in the hot sun, given water only “once or twice,” and provided no bathroom breaks); Maxwell v. County of San Diego, 708 F.3d 1075, 1083 (9th Cir. 2013) (police seized/detained plaintiffs “for over five hours solely because they were witnesses to a crime.”); Est. of Aguirre v. County of Riverside, 29 F.4th 624, 626–27, 629 (9th Cir. 2022) (police officer shot and killed a suspect holding a baseball bat when the suspect was not facing the officer, was holding the bat pointed downwards, and was not threatening anyone else).

Here, Anderson used aggressive language with the officers, ignored an order from the officers, and rushed towards them in a small and confined space. Moreover, the officers were responding to an active domestic violence situation and needed to make split-second decisions when Anderson charged at them.

Second, the Court ruled that Plaintiffs failed to show controlling authorities (or a collection of persuasive ones) that would have put every reasonable officer on notice that the Defendants’ conduct violated the Fourth Amendment. In doing so, it distinguished several cases Plaintiffs had relied on from the facts here. The key distinguishments were as follows:

Anderson was on his feet when he was shot, was quickly approaching the officers while ignoring commands to get on the ground and was rapidly advancing on the officers and could access their weapons if he was not stopped (regardless of whether his hands were located or if he reached for a weapon). Further, Anderson was contacted inside his residence (possibly near his wife) and officers, who had been advised by the children of a physical altercation, did not know the status of her welfare. Officers faced Anderson in a narrow hall with no barriers, meaning retreat was not viable and may have left Anderson’s wife alone and allowed Anderson time to obtain a weapon.

The Court ultimately held that officers were entitled to qualified immunity since none of the cases plaintiffs relied on were sufficiently analogous to put a reasonable officer on notice that the use of deadly force here would be unconstitutional.

This case highlights how critical it is for courts ruling on qualified immunity to recognize the importance of how rapidly developing a situation is in assessing what split-second decisions officers must make. It also reasserts the high bar plaintiffs have to meet to overcome qualified immunity within the Fourth Amendment context.

You can find the case here.

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