By DUSTIN HARTUV
The case of City of Escondido v. Emmons began in April 2013, when police officers in Escondido, California, received a 911 call about a reported charge of domestic violence.[i] The individuals involved were Maggie Emmons and her husband.[ii] Her husband was arrested but released, and in May of the same year, another 911 call was issued.[iii] Two officers arrived at the house of Maggie Emmons, and were instructed to exercise caution as her two children were proclaimed to be located in the house.[iv] Once the officers were at the house, several important events occurred.[v] No one opened the front door, and so the officers spoke with Maggie Emmons through one of the windows, instructing her to open the front door.[vi] Concurrently, the officers heard the voice of another man, demanding that Maggie not open the door.[vii]
Several moments later, after more officers arrived at the house, the front door opened, and the unidentified man walked through the door.[viii] The man was later found to be Marty Emmons, father of Maggie Emmons.[ix] He was instructed by one officer not to close the door, but he failed to abide by the request, and then walked past them.[x] The officer then put him on the ground and handcuffed him, though footage from the officer’s camera video show that there was no violence nor any aggression in this act.[xi]
The crux of the case revolves around the idea of qualified immunity.[xii] That is, were the police officers, and specifically the officer who arrested Marty Emmons, acting within their official capacities as police officers?[xiii] Marty Emmons sued the two officers for not having probable cause to arrest him and for using excessive force.[xiv] Marty Emmons mainly cited the fourth amendment, but both counts were rejected by the District Court.[xv] The decision was appealed, and the Ninth Circuit overturned one of the charges, agreeing with the District Court about the fact of probable cause, but disagreeing about the use of excessive force.[xvi] The Ninth Circuit had a different interpretation of qualified immunity, feeling that the officers, and specifically the officer who arrested Marty Emmons, overstepped their boundaries as police officers.[xvii]
The Supreme Court sided with the police officers, reversing the Ninth Circuit’s charge of excessive force, while still agreeing there was probable cause to arrest Marty Emmons.[xviii] The Ninth Circuit believed that although there was no specific law forbidding the excessive force, Marty Emmons had an entitlement to be free of excessive force.[xix] The Supreme Court wrote that the Ninth Circuit failed to specify a law that was broken by the officers, and that the actions of the officers did not break any implied right to be free of excessive force.[xx]
The per curiam decision by the Supreme Court in City of Escondido v. Emmons demonstrates the importance of qualified immunity in cases where officers are not overstepping their bounds, and fits nicely with past precedent.[xxi] The term qualified immunity first began to be utilized in the 1982 case Harlow v. Fitzgerald.[xxii] This case established the right of White House aides to be free from “liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights.”[xxiii] The case progressively began to be applied in other scenarios, and asserts that government workers are not liable for duties required in their course of action.[xxiv] In City of Escondido v. Emmons, the officers were not asserting any more force than was necessary in the given situation.[xxv] The officer who arrested Emmons simply fulfilled his duty in ensuring Emmons received justice for failing to abide by the officer’s command.[xxvi] No weapons were utilized, and there were no signs of physical damage on the body of Emmons.[xxvii] Finally, with increasing societal tension and discussion over the proper role of police officers, it would set a dangerous legal precedent to restrict the right of a police officer to act in his or her role when clearly no harm has been committed.[xxviii] Although the fact of an ad curiam case is not evidence alone for the clear-cut nature of a case, it does demonstrate how even in a divided court, the justices are all willing to act within precedent in cases where clearly no rights are being degraded.[xxix]
[i] City of Escondido v. Emmons, Oyez, https://www.oyez.org/cases/2018/17-1660 (last visited Feb 11, 2019).
[xii] City of Escondido, California et al. v. Marty Emmons, 586 U.S. 1 (2019).
[xxii] Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982)
[xxv] City of Escondido, California et al. v. Marty Emmons, 586 U.S. 1 (2019).