Daniel Rivas-Villegas v. Ramon Cortesluna, 595 U. S. ____ (2021)
Petitioner Rivas-Villegas, a police officer in Union City, CA, responded to a 911 call where respondent Ramon Cortesluna, holding a chainsaw, threatened to hurt his girlfriend and her children. Officers ordered the suspect outside and onto the ground. Officers saw a knife in his left pocket. One officer bean bagged him twice because he moved his hands down against the officers’ commands. While Rivas-Villegas and another officer were in the process of removing the knife and handcuffing the suspect, Rivas-Villegas briefly placed his knee on the suspect’s back for 8 seconds. The suspect sued for excessive force for the knee placement.
The issue was whether Rivas-Villegas was 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. 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. Existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate. The existing precedent inquiry must be undertaken in light of the specific context of the case, not as a broad general proposition.
The Appellate Court applied LaLonde as the existing precedent to hold that Rivas-Villegas violated clearly established law, and thus not entitled to qualified immunity. In LaLonde, officers responded to a noise complaint. LaLonde answered the door in his underwear and a T-shirt, holding a sandwich in his hand. He refused to let the officers enter his home. One officer knocked the sandwich from his hand and grabbed his ponytail and knocked him to the ground. After a scuffle, the officer maced LaLonde in the face. LaLonde ceased resisting and another officer, while handcuffing him, dug his knee into LaLonde’s back with a force that caused him long-term back injury.
The Supreme Court distinguished LaLonde from the interaction involving Rivas-Villegas. One suspect clearly did not pose a threat while the other was threatening his girlfriend and her children with a chainsaw. “Precedent involving similar facts can help move a case beyond the otherwise hazy borders between excessive and acceptable force and thereby provide an officer notice that a specific use of force is unlawful.” However, LaLonde was not sufficiently similar to provide Rivas-Villegas with notice that the placement of his knee was unlawful. For that reason, the Court reversed the Ninth Circuit and held that Rivas-Villegas was entitled to qualified immunity.
In use of force cases, we apply the foundational Graham v. Connor and Tennessee v. Garner tests to determine if the force was justified. These foundational tests are broadly applied and can establish why force was justified. However, in a qualified immunity case, the plaintiff must identify a relevant case that put the officer on notice that his specific conduct was unlawful to show a violation of clearly established law.