As police brutality remains a hot button issue throughout the nation, the United States Supreme Court ruled on Monday in favor of an Arizona police officer who shot a woman in her front yard.
The victim, Amy Hughes, survived the shooting and has been trying to pursue justice since the incident.
According to NPR, officers were responding to a 911 call about a woman hacking a tree with a knife. When they arrived on the scene, Hughes was spotted. She fit the description they received from the call, and she was carrying a knife in her hand. Additionally, she was standing in close proximity to another woman, whom officers were unaware was her roommate at the time.
All three responding officers drew their guns on Hughes, but only one of them opened fire.
Although the officers said Hughes appeared calm, she did not obey their repeated orders to drop the knife, prompting one of the officers to shoot.
Hughes sued for $150,000 in damages. However, the Supreme Court determined that the officer acted reasonably given the circumstances of the situation and tossed out Hughes’ case.
The court’s decision, which was made without ordering full briefing or argument, stated that under the law:
“The reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the vision of 20/20 hindsight," and the court reiterated that the "calculus of reasonableness" must allow for "the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments — in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving....”
Additionally, even if Hughes’ ordeal was deemed excessive force — which the court said was “a proposition that is not at all evident on these facts” — the officer responsible for shooting her still wouldn’t have been liable under the court’s “qualified immunity” doctrine. The officer would be immune from any lawsuit because his actions did not violate “any clearly established statutory or constitutional right” that “a reasonable person could have known” of.
Only two Supreme Court justices opposed this verdict. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, noting that two of the three responding officers found it “unnecessary to use deadly force.” They also pointed out that Hughes was “nowhere near the officers, had committed no illegal act, was suspected of no crime, and did not raise the knife in the direction of the other woman or anyone else.”
Sotomayor asserted that a case of this nature would not normally be disposed of without briefing or argument as “the relevant facts are hotly disputed.” Furthermore, she said the question of immunity in this case is, “at the very best, a close call.” However, the court has “intervened prematurely, purporting to correct an error that is not at all clear” rather than letting the case go to a jury.
The liberal justice appointed by former President Barack Obama, who also happens to be the Supreme Court’s first justice of Hispanic descent and first Latina, went on to assert that the court’s “unwarranted” overturning of the lower court’s decision in this case is “symptomatic” of a “disturbing” and “one-sided” approach to cases involving excessive force in which police are nearly always protected.
She accused the doctrine of limited immunity for police of being converted into “an absolute shield for law enforcement officers.”
She concluded her scathing, yet accurate, statement of dissent by declaring that the court is “wrong on the law” and is sending “an alarming signal” to law enforcement and the public, which tells police that they “can shoot first and think later” while telling the public that “palpably unreasonable conduct will go unpunished.”
Although the court's decision is final, Sotomayor's criticism is important as it exposes that the flaws of the criminal justice system extend to the highest court in the land. While the courts are protecting the police officers who are firing bullets on a whim, who is protecting civilians?
If anything, this verdict will only intensify tensions and distrust between law enforcement and the American public.