If you’ve been following the news, then you have probably heard the term qualified immunity. There have been calls to abolish qualified immunity when it comes to cases involving the behavior of police officers. It is believed that this will result in police officers refraining from misconduct and brutal behavior. However, you may not understand what exactly qualified immunity means.
What is Qualified Immunity?
Qualified immunity is a type of legal immunity. It was put into place in an effort to balance the need to hold public officials accountable when they perform their duties in an unreasonable way and to protect public officials from the consequences of their actions when they act rationally in the scope of their job duties. It is a judicially created doctrine that protects government employees from being held responsible for constitutional violations for monetary damages under federal law, as long as the officials did not violate a clearly established law. Qualified immunity is not just immunity from having to pay money damages. It is immunity from having to go through a lawsuit at all. That’s why the issue of whether qualified immunity applies is addressed early in a case.
Qualified immunity typically arises in cases involving police misconduct. It can be difficult to overcome qualified immunity in use of force cases because the required standard that must be met is relatively high. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that in order to overcome qualified immunity, it must be shown that the police officer violated a clearly established law. In addition, the law violated must be so clear that a reasonable police officer would have recognized it.
The Future of Qualified Immunity
In the wake of a number of racially-motivated violent incidents involving police, the future of qualified immunity has been called in to question. Opponents of immunity argue that it’s basically a shield for police officers to protect them from the consequences of their misconduct. The standard to overcome qualified immunity is so high that it is difficult to meet in most cases.
On June 16, 2020, the Supreme Court announced that it would decline to review a number of qualified immunity cases that had been brought before it. Among these cases was the case of West v. Winfield, wherein Shaniz West allowed the police into her home to search for her ex-boyfriend who had an outstanding warrant. While inside the home, the police made extensive property damage, punching holes in windows, walls, and ceilings. They also fired so much tear gas into the home that West wasn’t able to inhabit it for two months. When West sued for damages, it was found that qualified immunity applied because there was no clearly established law that police cannot do extensive property damage when they are voluntarily allowed inside someone’s home. In failing to review cases such as West’s, the Supreme Court has sent a clear message that it believes immunity is here to stay.
In order to limit or abolish qualified immunity, Congress will need to take action. House Democrats have introduced a crime bill that would strip state and local police and correctional officers of immunity. Another Congressman introduced a bill that would end immunity in cases involving civil rights. Action may also be taken at the state level. Colorado passed a sweeping police reform bill that allows plaintiffs to bypass qualified immunity.
Contact an Experienced Attorney
If you were the victim of police misconduct, you should consult with an experienced civil rights attorney. Gregg Goldfarb has been protecting civil rights for over 20 years. Contact us online or call us at 305-374-7000 to schedule a free consultation.