Excessive Force

Hughes v. Kisela, 841 F.3d 1081 (9th Cir. 2016)

Ninth Circuit reverses district court’s grant of summary judgment to police officers based on qualified immunity when there were disputed facts as to whether the officer acted reasonably when he shot a woman who was holding a knife, but not acting aggressively.

Background: In May 2010, three officers responded to a welfare check call and reports of a woman acting erratically and hacking at a tree with a large knife. Soon after the officers arrived, Amy Hughes exited her house carrying a large kitchen knife at her side with the blade pointing backwards. Sharon Chadwick, who lived with Hughes, was standing outside the house near the driveway at the time. She later testified that Hughes was composed and content. Chadwick also testified that she did not consider Hughes a threat and was not in any fear. The three officers each drew their guns and ordered Hughes to drop the knife; Corporal Kisela contended that the officers yelled several times but Chadwick remembered hearing only two commands in rapid succession. Corporal Kisela testified that he saw Hughes raise the knife as if to attack, but the other two responding officers told investigators that they did not see her raise the knife. Corporal Kisela fired four shots each of which struck Hughes, but the injuries were not fatal. Chadwick testified that Hughes was taking medication for bipolar disorder, and Chadwick was always able to manage Hughes’s behavior in the past. Chadwick also testified that she believes Hughes did not understand what was happening when the police yelled for her to drop the knife. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the police officer on a theory of qualified immunity.

Holding: The Ninth Circuit ruled that the officer was not entitled to summary judgment with respect to the reasonableness of his actions. The court also explained that qualified immunity requires a determination that the actions of the officer were reasonable, which in this case involved disputed facts that should properly be weighed by a jury. The Ninth Circuit reversed the grant of summary judgment and remanded for a jury to determine whether the responding officer acted reasonably.

Notable Point:

Excessive Force and Mental Illness: The Ninth Circuit noted that there are not separate excessive force analyses for those with mental illness and serious criminals, but the government interest in using such force is diminished when confronted with an individual with mental illness.

Found in DMHL Volume 35, Issue 4