By Emma Andersson, Senior Staff Attorney, Criminal Law Reform Project
The Supreme Court just ruled that a police officer could not be sued for gunning down Amy Hughes. This has vast implications for law enforcement accountability. The details of the case are as damning as the decision. Hughes was not suspected of a crime. She was simply standing still, holding a kitchen knife at her side. The officer gave no warning that he was going to shoot her if she did not comply with his commands. Moments later, the officer shot her four times.
Shoot first and think later,” according to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, is what the officer did.
As Sotomayor argued in dissent, the court’s decision in Kisela v. Hughes means that such “palpably unreasonable conduct will go unpunished.” According to seven of the nine Justices, Hughes’ Fourth Amendment right to not be shot four times in this situation is less protected than the officer’s interest in escaping accountability for his brazen abuse of authority. According to Justice Sotomayor, “If this account of [the officer’s] conduct sounds unreasonable, that is because it was. And yet, the Court … insulates that conduct from liability under the doctrine of qualified immunity.” Worse yet, this decision wasn’t a surprise. And it certainly isn’t an aberration.
In fact, it is just the latest in a long line of cases in which the Supreme Court has decimated our ability to vindicate constitutional rights when government actors overstep. And when law enforcement oversteps, as was the case with Hughes, the consequences can be devastating.
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