In 2016 Joy called 911 and stated that her ex-husband, Dominic Rollice, was inside of her garage and refused to leave. She went on to tell them that he was intoxicated and did not live there but did keep some tools at her place.
Three officers, all familiar with Rollice, responded and spoke to him in the doorway. They explained that they were trying to give him a ride and not take him to jail. Rollice refused a request to be patted down and as the officers took a step towards Rollins he took a step back.
Rollins then walked towards the back of the garage refusing police orders to stop and grabbed a hammer from the wall. Rollins raised the hammer with both hands and moved towards an unobstructed path towards the officers. Ignoring the police commands to drop the hammer, he raised it behind his head and took a stance as if he was going to throw the hammer at the officers or charge them. Two of the officers fired their weapons, killing Rollice.
Rollins’ estate sued the officers under §1983 for excessive force. The District Court granted the summary judgement but the 10th Circuit reversed, explaining that Tenth Circuit precedent allows an officer to be held liable for a shooting that is itself objectively reasonable if the officer’s reckless or deliberate conduct created a situation requiring deadly force (taking the first step towards Rollins which caused him to move back and eventually grab the hammer).
As to qualified immunity, the 10th circuit concluded that several cases, most notably Allen v. Muskogee, 119 F. 3d 837 (CA10 1997), clearly established that the officers’ conduct was unlawful.
The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the 10th circuit and granted summary judgement to the officers. They chose not to address the constitutional violation and instead found that the officers did not violate any clearly established law. Remember that courts have discretion of granting summary judgement if there is 1) no constitutional violation or 2) if it was not clearly established law. They do not have to go in order and can decide based on either prong (sometimes they discuss both prongs but it is not necessary if they are granting summary judgement).
The doctrine of qualified immunity shields officers from civil liability so long as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. Qualified immunity protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law. We have repeatedly told courts not to define clearly established law at too high a level of generality.
It is not enough that a rule be suggested by then existing precedent; the rule’s contours must be so well defined that it is clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted. Such specificity is especially important in the Fourth Amendment context, where it is sometimes difficult for an officer to determine how the relevant legal doctrine, here excessive force, will apply to the factual situation the officer confronts.
The 10th circuit relied most heavily on Allen. But the facts of Allen are dramatically different from the facts here. The officers in Allen responded to a potential suicide call by sprinting toward a parked car, screaming at the suspect, and attempting to physically wrest a gun from his hands.
Officers in this case, by contrast, engaged in a conversation with Rollice, followed him into a garage at a distance of six to ten feet, and did not yell until after he picked up a hammer. We cannot conclude that Allen “clearly established” that their conduct was reckless or that their ultimate use of force was unlawful.