What is qualified immunity and how does it affect police and anyone wanting to sue them?

In the United States, a legal doctrine known as qualified immunity protects government officials, like police officers, from being sued.

Some critics argue that qualified immunity gives police officers too much protection from accountability, while others say it is necessary to protect officers from frivolous lawsuits.

What is qualified immunity?

Qualified immunity is a doctrine created by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that holds that public officials have protection from being sued for actions they take while performing their duties.

How does it affect police officers, in particular?

The court’s reasoning for the doctrine was to offer protection for police officers from frivolous lawsuits and to allow for police mistakes that can come when split-second judgments are required during dangerous situations.

How far does the immunity go?

According to the Supreme Court, the doctrine protects individuals from liability for their actions and keeps them from being sued. The immunity, or protection from being sued, extends to public officials even if they violate someone’s constitutional rights.

How did qualified immunity evolve?

Under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, Americans were given the right to sue public officials who violated their legal rights. Under Section 1983, Lawsuits (the section of the code that allows for such suits), a person holding a public office could be held financially accountable for violating another person’s rights.

In 1967, the Supreme Court introduced qualified immunity in the case of Pierson v. Ray. The court reasoned that police enforcing the law in good faith should not face liability for their actions.

In 1982, the court revisited the doctrine to include the “clearly established” test.

According to the ruling, officials cannot be sued if their actions did not “violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”

Can a person get around qualified immunity to sue a police officer?

There is a two-part test that a plaintiff would have to meet to be able to sue a police officer. They must:

  • Show evidence that a jury would likely find the officer’s use of force would violate the Fourth Amendment.
  • Show that the officer(s) should have known they were violating “clearly established law.”

What does the Fourth Amendment say?

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

How likely is it that a person can sue the police?

It is challenging to meet the standards above to bring a suit against a police officer. A plaintiff would have to find a nearly identical case in the same jurisdiction to be allowed to go ahead with a lawsuit.

The suit is thrown out if they cannot find an identical case.

How often do police benefit from qualified immunity?

In excessive-force cases from 2005 to 2007, police were favored in 44% of cases, a Reuters investigation found. From 2017 to 2019, police were favored in 57% of cases.

Is Congress doing anything to change qualified immunity?

The Justice in Policing Act is presently making its way through Congress. The act would eliminate qualified immunity for police officers.