What is Qualified Immunity for Law Enforcement?
Qualified Immunity is a doctrine that protects police officers and other government officials from being sued for monetary damages for violations of constitutional rights. This doctrine does not provide immunity if the officers violated “clearly established” law, which is a defined statutory or constitutional right.
Following incidents of alleged police brutality or misconduct, many victims wonder, “Can I sue a police officer?” The answer can be complicated. The reality is that overcoming the standard established under Qualified Immunity in order to sue a police officer or government official can be extremely difficult.
In this blog post, we’ll look at the legal foundations of Qualified Immunity and examine what can be done to overcome it in cases where victims of alleged police brutality and other Constitutional rights violations want to sue police officers or other government officials for monetary damages.
What is Qualified Immunity?
Qualified Immunity is exactly that: immunity with strings attached. It provides immunity and protection from legal liability unless the officer knowingly violates the law by his or her actions. This legal doctrine was strengthened in a 1982 Supreme Court case, Harlow v. Fitzgerald. In its decision, the Supreme Court held that “Government officials performing their discretionary functions generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”
Two other Supreme Court cases established the procedures necessary for determining if Qualified Immunity applies — Saucier v. Katz in 2001 and Pearson v. Callahan in 2009.
Saucier v. Katz (2001)
In this case, the Supreme Court established a two-step test for determining Qualified Immunity:
- The court must determine whether facts as alleged by the plaintiff constitute a violation of a constitutional right.
- The court must decide if the constitutional right was “clearly established” at the time of the alleged violation by the police officer or government official.
The Court determined that the steps must be considered in this sequential order and that Qualified Immunity was in force unless the conduct violated BOTH tests.
However, the Court would expand upon the decision in Saucier v. Katz just eight years later, in a separate case, Pearson v. Callahan.
Pearson v. Callahan (2009)
In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that the sequence of steps established in Saucier v. Katz was no longer mandatory in every case. The Court ruled that other courts may use discretion in determining which of the tests should be addressed first in order to more clearly or easily determine whether to grant Qualified Immunity.
Qualified Immunity and “Clearly Established” Law
The biggest legal challenge in suing police officers or government officials for alleged Constitutional rights violations is the test established in Harlow v. Fitzgerald — namely, that the law officials are alleged to have violated be “clearly established” statutory or constitutional rights.
What does this mean, exactly?
According to the Supreme Court’s decision in Harlow v. Fitzgerald, in order to be sued for financial damages, not only does a police officer or government official’s behavior have to violate the law, but the plaintiff must also show that there is clear judicial precedent that says that behavior violates the law.
This is a significant challenge for those who wish to sue a police officer or government official for an alleged violation of Constitutional rights or other misconduct.
Some Courts have taken the standard established in Harlow v. Fitzgerald to the extreme.
For instance, in 2018 the 6th Circuit Court ruled that Qualified Immunity was proper when an officer released a dog on a suspect who was sitting on the floor with his hands raised. The 6th Circuit made this decision despite the fact that the same court had previously ruled in 2012 that the Fourth Amendment was clearly violated when a different officer released a dog on a suspect who was not fleeing or resisting and had surrendered by lying on the ground.
So how did the Court justify its decision in granting Qualified Immunity in the 2018 case?
Because in this case the suspect was sitting, and not lying on the floor, in the 2018 case the 6th Circuit ruled that there was no violation of “clearly established” law.
So, in conclusion, overcoming Qualified Immunity in bringing a civil lawsuit against a police officer or government official is very difficult, mostly due to the burden of proving the alleged behavior violates “clearly established” law. It appears that the courts make this determination on a case-by-case basis.
It’s not impossible to sue a police officer or government official for an alleged Constitutional violation or other misconduct, however. An experienced police brutality and misconduct lawyer can help evaluate your claim and advise you on your legal options for seeking justice.
What is the Future of Qualified Immunity?
Despite its previous decisions establishing the doctrine of Qualified Immunity, the Supreme Court could consider the doctrine again in the future.
In June 2020, the Supreme Court declined to consider several cases concerning Qualified Immunity, however, so the future of judicial action on the subject is uncertain.
In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020, however, there is growing pressure on Congress to act to reexamine Qualified Immunity through legislation.
Many high-profile congressmen and women, including Justin Amash (L-MI) and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), have sponsored legislation that would make it easier to sue police officers and other government officials for alleged Constitutional violations and misconduct. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and other senators have also sponsored similar legislation.
Have you suffered from police brutality or another Constitutional rights violation?
If you are the victim of alleged police brutality, excessive force or misconduct, you deserve justice and you may be entitled to compensation. An experienced police brutality lawyer can help evaluate your claim and advise you on your legal options — including how you may be able to overcome Qualified Immunity.
At Riddle & Brantley, our North Carolina police brutality lawyers have been holding law enforcement and the government accountable for potential Constitutional rights violations, including many types of police brutality, for decades, and we would love to help you if we can.
For a FREE consultation with a North Carolina police brutality lawyer, please call 1-800-525-7111 or complete the fast and easy form below.
There is no obligation and you won’t pay any attorney fees unless we win your case and you receive financial compensation.
“Those who have suffered a violation of their Constitutional rights deserve justice.”
–Gene Riddle, managing partner and attorney, Riddle & Brantley
Please call 1-800-525-7111 today and let’s review your case.
Justice Counts for victims of police brutality and misconduct and we would love to help you and your loved ones if we can.