In a stunning, yet not surprising decision, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on January 7, 2019 on the issue of qualified immunity involving a use of force encounter in the case entitled City of Escondido, et al. v. Marty Emmons.  The Emmons case involved an incident that occurred in the City of Escondido in 2013.  Directly and succinctly, the Supreme Court found that the Court of Appeals failed to do a comprehensive and relevant analysis of the facts of the case in order to properly apply the doctrine of qualified immunity as it pertained to the officers’ alleged use of force.  Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment with respect to one officer and vacated and remanded the judgment against the other officer.

Facts of the Case

In April 2013, Escondido police received a 911 call from Maggie Emmons to report that her husband had committed domestic violence against her. She lived at the apartment with her husband, her two children and a roommate, Ametria Douglas.  On that occasion, the officers arrested her husband.  A few weeks later, the police received another 911 domestic violence call at the same location.  This call was made by the roommate’s mother who reported that she heard her daughter screaming for help before the phone was disconnected.  Prior to arriving at the location, the police, Officer Craig and Sergeant Toth, among others, were informed that there were two children in the apartment and that no one was answering the phone.  Upon their arrival, the officers knocked on the front door.  No one answered the phone when dispatch called.  When the officers went to a side window, they saw Maggie Emmons standing inside the apartment and asked her to open the door so that they could conduct a welfare check.  The officers could also see a man in the apartment, but could not tell who he was.  The man told Ms. Emmons to get away from the window.

A few minutes later, a man, later identified as Marty Emmons, opened the front door and stepped outside. Officer Craig, who was standing near the door, asked the man to leave the door open.  Mr. Emmons, however, refused to do so and closed the door.  Mr. Emmons then attempted to brush past Officer Craig.  Officer Craig stopped Mr. Emmons and took him to the ground.  Thereafter, Officer Craig handcuffed Mr. Emmons.  Officer Craig did not strike Mr. Emmons and did not draw any weapon.

Mr. Emmons, the father of Maggie Emmons, subsequently was arrested for misdemeanor obstruction. Mr. Emmons later sued both Officer Craig and Sergeant Toth for excessive force.  Sergeant Toth at no time applied any force to Marty Emmons and was merely present at the scene during the arrest.

The District Court held that the officers had probable cause to arrest Mr. Emmons. The District Court rejected the excessive force claim outright and cited to the body worn camera videos that demonstrated that the officers acted “professionally and respectfully” in the encounter.  Since Officer Craig was the only officer that used force, the District Court granted summary judgment to Sergeant Toth on the excessive force claim.  In addition, the District Court granted summary judgment to Officer Craig, based on qualified immunity, reasoning that the law did not clearly establish that Officer Craig could not take down Mr. Emmons under the circumstances presented.

Upon appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Court reversed and remanded the matter for trial on the excessive force claims against both officers. The Court of Appeals did not disturb that finding that the officers had probable cause to arrest Mr. Emmons and only analyzed the application of force by the officers during the arrest.  The Court of Appeals curtly reasoned that “the right to be free of excessive force was clearly established at the time of the events in question.”  The Court offered no other reasons to remand the matter to the trial court.

The Supreme Court Opinion

Upon review, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Ninth Circuit as to Sergeant Toth and vacated and remanded the matter as to Officer Craig. The Court found that the Ninth Circuit’s decision as to Sergeant Toth was erroneous since Sergeant Toth had never applied any force to Mr. Emmons.  The Supreme Court was also somewhat perplexed by the dearth of qualified immunity analysis by the Ninth Circuit.  The entire qualified analysis by the Court of Appeals consisted of one sentence: “the right to be free of excessive force was clearly established at the time of the events in question.”

The Supreme Court found this analysis lacking. The Court then presented the proper, more detailed analysis of qualified immunity as it pertained to Officer Craig.  First, the Court found that the clearly established right must be defined with specificity, and not at a high level of generality.  The Court specifically pointed out that “it does not suffice for a court simply to state that an officer may not use unreasonable and excessive force, deny qualified immunity, and then remit the case for a trial on the question of reasonableness.”  The Court further stated that the established right must have sufficiently defined contours so that officers would understand when they would be violating that right.

In this case, the Court stated that the Court of Appeals made no effort to explain how any of their cited cases prohibited Officer Craig’s actions. In fact, according to the Supreme Court, the one case that the Ninth Circuit cited in their opinion, Gravelet-Blondin v. Shelton, involved an individual that was passively resistant.  The Supreme Court found that the Ninth Circuit failed to explain how that case clearly established that Officer Craig was prohibited from taking Mr. Emmons to the ground and handcuffing him in the underlying encounter.  Accordingly, the Supreme Court remanded the case back to the Ninth Circuit and instructed them to conduct a proper analysis of existing legal precedent to determine whether Officer Craig was entitled to qualified immunity.


Interestingly, both the District Court and the Supreme Court took notice that the officer’s body camera videos demonstrated that the officers conducted themselves professionally and respectfully during the entire encounter. In addition, the videos demonstrated that Marty Emmons was not in any visible or audible pain as a result of Officer Craig’s takedown.  This objective evidence assisted the lower Court and Supreme Court in their analysis of the use of force claim asserted by Mr. Emmons.

This decision further demonstrates that the Supreme Court is still having issues with the Ninth Circuit and its application of the doctrine of qualified immunity in use of force cases. Several recent Supreme Court cases have remarked that the Ninth Circuit has failed to properly analyze the issue of whether the law was sufficiently established to place law enforcement officers on notice that their actions were prohibited.  Specifically, the high Court has reversed the Ninth Circuit with specific instructions to cease defining the constitutional right at a high level of generality and the need for the court to identify specific cases where an officer was acting under similar circumstances and was held to violate the Fourth Amendment.  In this case, the Ninth Circuit was faulted again for the engaging in the same broad and over-sweeping analysis.

As always, if you wish to discuss this matter in greater detail, please feel free to contact me at (714) 446–1400 or via email at jrt@jones-mayer.com.

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