The family of Dylan Liberti, a Scottsdale man fatally shot by police in 2016, is now appealing their wrongful death and excessive force case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
They are primarily challenging the legal concept of qualified immunity, which protects government officials from liability for violating someone's constitutional rights as long no “clearly established law” prohibits their actions.
This case's outcome could have a profound impact on police officer defenses in federal excessive force cases and other civil rights lawsuits across the country.
A Scottsdale officer fatally shot Dylan Liberti, 24, on July 27, 2016. He and another officer had responded to a shopping center for a welfare check after a 911 hang-up call.
Liberti had used drugs. He was polite, but he ignored officers' commands to sit down. When an officer tried to force him down onto the hot summer sidewalk, the situation quickly escalated and ended in a shooting two minutes later that killed Liberti.
A key question in the federal appeals court oral arguments in March 2020 was whether Scottsdale police made a false arrest when they tried to physically detain Liberti. The judges questioned whether such a false arrest could make Scottsdale civilly liable in a wrongful death case under Arizona law.
An attorney for Scottsdale argued there was probable cause for the arrest because Liberti appeared to be under the influence of drugs in a public place, which is a crime.
A lawyer representing the City of Scottsdale argued the shooting itself was justified, based on several rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court in similar cases. Liberti produced a small knife and started running in an officer's direction after an initial struggle and foot chase, which led to the officer shooting Liberti twice.
The appeals court ruled 2-1 in favor of the City of Scottsdale.
In late December, a lawyer for the Liberti family filed an appeal to be considered by the U.S. Supreme Court. It could take several months to learn whether the court will fully hear the case.
The Libertis want the high court to decide three legal questions. First, whether to abolish qualified immunity because it "has evolved to shield police officers and other public officials from liability for bad-faith conduct," according to the court filing. Secondly, could the police officers who attacked Liberti have thought that the United States Constitution would let them "attack" a citizen just because they wanted him to sit on hot concrete pavement, and he wanted to stand? Thirdly, could "a reasonable tier of fact" find the officer's "unprovoked attack" on Liberti have contributed to the fatal shooting two minutes later.
Two years ago, a federal district court judge dismissed the Liberti family's lawsuit in a summary judgment. Judge Douglas Rayes wrote the officers acted reasonably in the use of force and were protected by qualified immunity.