Qualified Immunity For Police
Accountability for police officers has drawn special scrutiny after last summer’s protests. Negotiations in Congress over a sweeping police reform bill in honor of George Floyd are now stalled over whether to eliminate qualified immunity. H.R.7120 – 116th Congress (2019-2020): George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 | Congress.gov | Library of Congress
Qualified immunity provides litigation defenses to police officers and public employees against claims for civil damages (money). In 1967, the US Supreme Court first granted qualified immunity to a police officer, holding that a officer acting in good faith was not liable for a false arrest. Pierson v. Ray – Wikipedia
Qualified immunity shields police misconduct both from liability and meaningful judicial scrutiny. Private civil lawsuits are an essential tool in uncovering the truth about police misconduct. The discovery process can yield information that makes possible policy changes within police departments.
The purpose of qualified immunity and other legal protections are to prevent financial harassment of officers, and psychological distraction when working in dangerous situations. “That way they can do their job and not have to be second-guessing, ‘Am I going to let this guy through? The last time I did, I got sued. I’m not going to take the chance,’” said Louis Lopez, a Texas attorney representing two officers in a civil suit.
“We don’t want to have our frontline security officers having to make these type of legal decisions when they’re in life or death situations or circumstances,” Lopez said.
But critics say the data doesn’t back up claims that if immunity is rolled back or lifted entirely there would be a widespread impact on policing. “There are big policy trade offs when you have an immunity for government officials,” said law professor Christopher Walker at The Ohio State University. “If you look at the legislation that the Congress is considering, some of it doesn’t get rid of qualified immunity entirely, it only narrows it.”
Although qualified immunity frequently appears in cases involving police officers, some form of civil immunity also applies to judges, prosecutors, legislators, and some other government officials.
More than two dozen states are considering their own limits on legal immunity for cops.