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. Because the focus is on whether the officer had fair notice that her conduct was unlawful, reasonableness is judged against the backdrop of the law at the time of the conduct. Although the U.S. Supreme Court’s caselaw does not require a case directly on point for a right to be clearly established, existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate. In other words, immunity protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law. The Supreme Court has repeatedly told courts—and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in particular—not to define clearly established law at a high level of generality.
Petitioner police officer responded to a radio report that a woman was acting erratically while holding a knife. He found respondent who matched the description in the report and was about to take a step towards another woman who was holding a knife. Petitioner shot respondent after she refused to drop the knife on his command. It was found that respondent had a history of mental illness and that she was roommates with the other woman petitioner thought respondent was threatening. Respondent sued petitioner for using excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The district court granted summary judgment to petitioner which the court of appeals reversed.
Is the petitioner entitled to qualified immunity in subduing a woman he perceived as posing a threat?
Where the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others, it is not constitutionally unreasonable to prevent escape by using deadly force. Even assuming a Fourth Amendment violation occurred, the police officer was at least entitled to qualified immunity because this was far from an obvious case in which any competent officer would have known that shooting respondent to protect her roommate would have violated the Fourth Amendment because respondent was armed with a large knife, she was within striking distance of her roommate, she ignored the officers’ orders to drop the weapon, and the situation unfolded in less than a minute. Not one of the decisions relied on by the court of appeals supported denying the officer qualified immunity.