Constantly, we see news articles of members of the police force doing illegal acts and committing crimes, yet they are never prosecuted and charged. This is because of Qualified Immunity. Qualified Immunity is a legal doctrine that makes it difficult and almost impossible to hold police officers accountable for crimes.
So, what does it do?
“Qualified Immunity is a judicially created doctrine that shields government officials from being held personally liable for constitutional violations-like the right to be free from excessive police force- for money damages under federal law so long as the officials did not violate “clearly established” law. To determine if the law was “clearly established,” the court turns to an already existing judicial decision with similar facts. As a result, says Julian Sanchez, during the first time around, “the right violated won’t be ‘clearly established,’ and the official that was responsible will have qualified immunity. This means that the initial person will not have any say because of qualified immunity and that the officer will only be charged if that instance would happen again. HOWEVER, during courts, one can allege any sort of difference between the current case and the past case. One of the differences that was used in court was the numeric distance between the police officer and the victim. Another was the location of the crime. Therefore, since there hadn’t been a “clearly established” law, the police officer would be protected by qualified immunity.
The Supreme Court invented qualified immunity in 1967. They described it as a modest exception for public officials who acted in “good faith” and believed that their conduct was authorized by law. So, in the case of a court, if the police officer can convince the judge that he had been acting with “good intentions,” he or she would not suffer any consequences.
An example of a case of qualified immunity took place in April 2013. “Police officers in Texas responded to a dispatch describing a Black man in a brown shirt, who was firing his gun at mailboxes in a residential neighborhood. When the officers arrived, the man fired his gun in their direction and then hid himself from view. The officers set up a defensive position behind three vehicles and began ordering the man to put his gun down. A few minutes later, the officers saw Gabriel Winzer, a mentally impaired 25-year-old riding a bicycle, wearing a blue shirt, and carrying a toy gun in his belt. Within six seconds of spotting him, the officers shot at Winzer 17 times, chased him down, and tased him. He died at the scene. The officers later claimed that they shot Winzer because they feared for their lives.
As in Brooks’s case, a federal appeals court concluded that the officers violated Winzer’s constitutional rights by using deadly force against him when he posed no threat to anyone. But nonetheless, according to the court, the officers were entitled to qualified immunity. To support that conclusion, the court offered one meager sentence of analysis: “We cannot conclude that Gabriel’s right to be free from excessive force was clearly established here.”
For more information about qualified immunity, I will be attaching some links and a helpful video. To help abolish qualified immunity, please sign this petition. Additionally, please support the Ending Qualified Immunity Act, proposed by Justin Amash (L-Michigan) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts). When Amash announced the bill, he explained:
“This week, I am introducing the Ending Qualified Immunity Act to eliminate qualified immunity and restore Americans’ ability to obtain relief when police officers violate their constitutionally secured rights. The brutal killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police is merely the latest in a long line of incidents of egregious police misconduct. This pattern continues because police are legally, politically, and culturally insulated from consequences for violating the rights of the people whom they have sworn to serve. That must change so that these incidents of brutality stop happening.”
Originally published July 15