“The Virginia Senate last week passed a comprehensive police reform package that would prohibit the use of no-knock warrants and chokeholds in the majority of cases and make it easier for departments to decertify rogue cops. One thing was noticeably absent, though: a ban on qualified immunity.
Qualified immunity makes it exceedingly difficult to sue public officials when they violate your rights, as it requires that any alleged misconduct be outlined almost identically in a previous court precedent. The doctrine has come under fire from all sides of the political spectrum. In June, Rep. Justin Amash (L–Mich.), joined by Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D–Mass.) and several other Democratic members of Congress, introduced a bill in the U.S. House that would have abolished qualified immunity (though it has not received a vote and will likely die without one).”
“But Virginia Democrats’ decision to punt on the issue puts them more in line with moderates in the Republican Party—a testament to the power of the law enforcement lobby.”
“DeBoard might gain new perspective on that if she were to talk to the mother of the 10-year-old boy who was shot in Georgia by sheriff’s deputy Matthew Vickers, who received qualified immunity. Or the parents of the 15-year-old boy on his way to school who was shot in Los Angeles by Officer Michael Gutierrez, who received qualified immunity. Or the man who had a police canine sicced on him—after he had surrendered—by two cops who both received qualified immunity. Or the men who allegedly had $225,000 stolen from them by two officers, executing a search warrant, who both received qualified immunity.
The latter case epitomizes the mental contortions required by the legal doctrine. A unanimous panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit wrote that “although the City Officers ought to have recognized that the alleged theft was morally wrong, they did not have clear notice that it violated the Fourth Amendment.” In other words, officers need case law text to tell them stealing is bad.
Advocates like DeBoard present an apocalyptic vision of a world without qualified immunity, one in which officers go bankrupt from frivolous civil suits and leave the force in droves. That’s not a vision based in reality. For one, losing qualified immunity is not equivalent to losing a lawsuit. It simply provides someone with the right to bring such a suit in front of a jury—a right the American public is technically still guaranteed under federal law. And in the case that a public servant does lose a suit, the municipality nearly always foots the bill.”
“Back in March of 2017, Curry was driving her kids to karate when she stopped to get them some muffins. She was in the café for just a few minutes. When she came out, two cops rebuked her for leaving the kids.
In Kentucky, it’s a crime to leave children under the age of eight in a car under circumstances that “manifest an extreme indifference” to human life and create a grave risk of death. But the cops didn’t say she’d done that. The kids all looked fine, and they the officers left without charging Curry with a crime. Nevertheless, they felt obligated to call the state’s child protection hotline, thus opening a neglect investigation which automatically required a visit to the Curry home to check on the kids.
When the caseworker arrived at the home, Holly refused to let her in without a warrant. The worker returned with a sheriff’s deputy, but still no warrant. When Holly insisted that they still couldn’t enter, they threatened to “come back and put your kids into foster care.” Holly begged for time to call her husband. They refused. Finally, crying and terrified, Holly let them in.
Labeling that decision “voluntary consent,” the authorities entered the home. Unsurprisingly, the house and kids all looked fine. Even so, the caseworker insisted on strip searching each kid, removing their underwear and examining their genitals for signs of abuse.
A few months later, the caseworker closed the investigation as “unsubstantiated,” saying that what Holly had done was a “one-time ‘oopsy-daisy.'” But she telephoned Curry later and said, “If we ever get a call against your family again, bad things will happen to you, and we’ll take your children.”
At that point, Curry had had enough. She turned around and filed suit against the caseworker and cop, claiming violation of her constitutional rights.
They, in turn, pressed hard for immunity. But in in a powerful ruling on August 19 in Curry v. Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Human Services, Judge Justin Walker said that it was clear the government used an improper threat to enter the home, lacked any evidence that might have justified a strip search, and violated the children’s rights to bodily integrity.”
” To enter a home without consent and examine stripped kids requires a warrant, genuine suspicion of abuse, or an actual emergency. Who knew? Apparently not the authorities in Kentucky, who have been defending the warrantless entry and strip ever since the Curry’s filed their lawsuit in 2018.”
“A federal judge this week gave a blistering rebuke of qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that makes it difficult to sue police officers in federal court when they violate your civil rights.
“The Constitution says everyone is entitled to equal protection of the law—even at the hands of law enforcement,” wrote Judge Carlton W. Reeves of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi in a majority decision released yesterday. “Over the decades, however, judges have invented a legal doctrine to protect law enforcement officers from having to face any consequences for wrongdoing. The doctrine is called ‘qualified immunity.’ In real life it operates like absolute immunity.””
“to overcome qualified immunity, a plaintiff must show that the defendant’s misconduct had been “clearly established” by existing case law—the standard pulled out of thin air by the Supreme Court in Harlow v. Fitzgerald (1982). In practice, this criterion requires that plaintiffs show a public official’s misbehavior is prohibited almost verbatim by a previous ruling from the same federal circuit or from the Supreme Court. That requirement is nearly impossible to meet. “This Court is required to apply the law as stated by the Supreme Court,” Reeves writes. “Under that law, the officer who transformed a short traffic stop into an almost two-hour, life-altering ordeal is entitled to qualified immunity. The officer’s motion seeking as much is therefore granted.”
It is not unheard of for a federal judge to show disdain for his own ruling. They are required to enforce precedents established by the Supreme Court, even when doing so defies common sense. (Federal judges can also be seen decrying the mandatory minimum sentences they are required by Congress to impose on defendants who meet statutory criteria.)
A review of current qualified immunity decisions is instructive. The legal doctrine has protected two cops who allegedly stole $225,000 while executing a search warrant; a sheriff’s deputy who shot a 10-year-old boy while aiming at the child’s non-threatening dog; a prison guard who forced a naked inmate to sleep in cells filled with raw sewage and “massive amounts” of human feces; two cops who assaulted and arrested a man for the crime of standing outside of his own house; two officers who sicced a police dog on a surrendered suspect. That list is not exhaustive.”
“The Supreme Court has declined to hear a slew of qualified immunity cases and instead volleyed responsibility back to Congress. While such decisions should arguably be made by Congress, the Supreme Court created the very problem it now wants no part in solving.
“I do not envy the task before the Supreme Court. Overturning qualified immunity will undoubtedly impact our society,” Reeves writes. “Yet, the status quo is extraordinary and unsustainable. Just as the Supreme Court swept away the mistaken doctrine of ‘separate but equal,’ so too should it eliminate the doctrine of qualified immunity.””
“Reuters analyzed 252 federal appellate opinions from 2015 to 2019 where law enforcement defendants claimed qualified immunity. The courts ruled in the police’s favor in 57 percent of the cases.”
“Under the 50-year-old doctrine of qualified immunity, police and other government employees are shielded from lawsuits where the civil right they allegedly infringed hasn’t been “clearly established,” or where a reasonable officer wouldn’t have known about it.”
“On its face, qualified immunity is supposed to protect public officials from frivolous lawsuits related to their official job duties, but the confusing precedent has been construed so pedantically by some courts that plaintiffs must find precedents that match the exact circumstances of their case. Qualified immunity effectively short-circuits civil litigation against individual police officers, ensuring that the cases never make it to trial or settlement.”