A University of Arizona police officer will get another chance to prove he acted properly in a 2010 incident when he shot a woman four times.
In a divided decision this morning, the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court said there was evidence that Andrew Kisela was entitled to qualified immunity in the shooting of Amy Hughes. The justices said that given the information Kisela and other police officers had at the time, they had reason to believe that Hughes, holding a large kitchen knife, posed an immediate danger to her roommate.
Today's ruling does not mean Kisela is off the legal hook in the civil suit filed by Hughes who, according to her attorney, suffered permanent injuries and has ongoing pain as well as emotional distress.
But given the direction of the nation's high court, it would appear that it would be difficult for Hughes to pursue her legal claim.
According to court records, three UA officers responded to an off-campus report of a person hacking a tree with a knife.
When they arrived they saw Amy Hughes emerge from her house carrying a large kitchen knife. When she began to walk toward Sharon Chadwick, police yelled for her to drop the knife.
Chadwick, who lived with Hughes, submitted an affidavit saying Hughes was composed and not threatening. And in talking with police afterwards, Chadwick said Hughes had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, was taking medication, and that she did not understand what was happening when police yelled for her to drop the knife.
The justices, however, noted that Kisela testified he shot Hughes because, although she posed no danger to him and the other officers, he believed she was a threat to Chadwick.
"Kisela had mere seconds to assess the potential danger to Chadwick," the justices wrote in the unsigned order. "He was confronted with a woman who had just been seen hacking a tree with a large kitchen knife and whose behavior was erratic enough to caused a concerned bystander to call 911 and then flag down Kisela and (Alex) Garcia," — another police officer.
Kisela was separated from the woman by a chain-link fence, Hughes had moved to within a few feet of Chadwick, and she failed to acknowledge at least two commands to drop the knife.
"This is far from an obvious case in which any competent officer would have known that shooting Hughes to protect Chadwick would violate the Fourth Amendment," the justices wrote.
Today's ruling was not unanimous.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for herself and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said the court, at least at the pretrial stage, has to look at the record in a way that would favor the ability of Hughes to take the case to trial.
The relevant facts, she said, is that Hughes stood stationary about six feet away from Chadwick appeared "composed and content," and was holding the knife "at her side with the blade facing away from Chadwick."
"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 Chadwick or anyone else," Sotomayor wrote. And she said the two other officers did not fire, with one testifying that he "wanted to continue trying verbal command[s] and see if that would work."
"But not Kisela," she said. "He thought it necessary to use deadly force, and so, without giving a warning that he would open fire, he shot Hughes four times, leaving her seriously injured."