Learn about the law that shields police officers from some civil lawsuits
The tragic murder of George Floyd by former Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin, along with other acts of police violence, has thrust the once-obscure doctrine of qualified immunity into the national spotlight.
Unfortunately, the doctrine is often misunderstood or misrepresented.
In this article, we’ll explain how qualified immunity applies to lawsuits against police officers, which states recognize qualified immunity, and whether the doctrine of qualified immunity is likely to survive.
What is qualified immunity?
Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that protects local, state, and federal government officials, including police officers, from civil (money) lawsuits.
Qualified immunity applies to civil lawsuits against government officials as individuals personally, not lawsuits against the government for damages caused by an official’s actions. Further, while qualified immunity is often discussed with respect to police officers, it also applies to most other executive branch officials.
Under the doctrine of qualified immunity, a police officer or any other government official cannot be held personally liable for their actions while acting within the scope of their official duties unless the plaintiff can prove that the officer violated a “clearly established” constitutional right.
The doctrine of qualified immunity is very favorable to police officers. The objective standard means that even an officer who acts in bad faith is entitled to the qualified immunity defense if a different officer could have reasonably made the mistake.
As the United States Supreme court explained in Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341 (1986):
“Qualified immunity provides ample protection to all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.”
Examples of qualified immunity
Qualified immunity almost always arises in civil rights cases filed under 42 U.S. Code § 1983 (“Section 1983), a federal statute that allows individuals to sue for damages when local, state, or federal government officials violate their constitutional rights.
For example, let’s say a local police officer pulls you over with reasonable cause but proceeds to assault you without provocation. You could use Section 1983 to sue the officer in federal court for violating your Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force.
Let’s look at a recent real-life example in which a lawsuit was filed using Section 1983 and qualified immunity applied:
Amy Corbitt, who didn’t know the suspect, was in the backyard at the time of the pursuit with her 6 children. Upon entering the backyard, police officers demanded that everyone get on the ground. All parties complied and the police handcuffed Christopher Barnett.
While everyone was still on the ground, the Corbitt family dog entered the backyard. Without provocation or threat, one of the officers, Michael Vickers, fired his gun at the dog. The bullet missed the dog but struck one of the children who was lying face down on the ground.
Fortunately, the child survived, but he suffered severe pain and mental trauma.
Amy filed a lawsuit against Michael Vickers pursuant to Section 1983. The lawsuit alleged that the officer violated the child’s right to be free from excessive force as guaranteed by the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Amy asked the district court to award damages totaling $2 million.
In response, Micahel Vickers filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that he was protected by qualified immunity because case law did not “clearly establish” that the act of firing at the dog and unintentionally shooting the child was unlawful. In support of this contention, Michael pointed to a prior court decision holding that “there is no clearly established right to be free from the accidental application of force during arrest, even if that force is deadly.”
The trial court ruled in favor of Amy, but a panel of appellate judges reversed the trial court’s decision, holding that Micahel Vickers was entitled to qualified immunity because no prior judicial decision involved “the unique facts of this case.”
Now, let’s look at a recent real-life example in which a lawsuit was filed using Section 1983 and qualified immunity did NOT apply:
Based on the telephone call, Rhode Island State Police Officer Edward Malley drew up felony charges for Jimmy Briggs. Officer Malley then requested an arrest warrant from a district court judge. The judge signed the warrant.
On March 19, 1981, Jimmy Briggs was arrested. When the case was presented to a grand jury, the charges were quickly dropped.
Jimmy Briggs sued Officer Malley in district court for damages pursuant to Section 1983, alleging that Officer Malley’s application for an arrest warrant violated his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights due to lack of probable cause.
Officer Malley argued that the case should be dropped because qualified immunity applied.
The case was ultimately heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, which held that “no reasonable officer would have believed that there was reasonable cause for an arrest warrant” and, therefore, qualified immunity did not apply.
History of qualified immunity
The U.S. Supreme Court first introduced the idea of qualified immunity in Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547 (1967), a case in which a group of peaceful protestors were wrongfully arrested for violating a statute later held to be unconstitutional. The protestors sued the police under Section 1983, alleging a violation of their constitutional rights.
In deciding to grant qualified immunity to the officers, the Court explained that, although Section 1983 does not explicitly mention qualified immunity, immunity for government officials had long been established in common law. The Court went on to set forth a subjective standard for determining whether qualified immunity applied. In short, the Court held that officers will be excused from liability if they act in “good faith.”
Fifteen years later, the U.S. Supreme Court—in Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982)—reaffirmed the legality of qualified immunity but abandoned the subjective good faith standard it had established in Pierson, and adopted the current objective standard (i.e., officers are excused from liability unless they violate a clearly established constitutional right of which a reasonable person would have known).
What is the justification for qualified immunity?
Most people believe that if you do something unlawful, you should be held accountable.
So why do we make a limited exception for law enforcement and government officials?
The U.S. Supreme Court did its best to explain the justification for qualified immunity in Harlow. The Court explained that qualified immunity seeks to achieve a “balance” between holding officials accountable and minimizing the “social costs” associated with suing government officials.
The 4 social costs identified by the Court were as follows:
- The expense of litigating frivolous lawsuits
- The diversion of official energy from pressing public issues
- The deterrence of capable citizens from choosing to enter government positions
- The inability of officials to carry out their duties without fear of personal liability or harassing litigation
Proponents of qualified immunity often point to the last social cost. Proponents, for example, are quick to argue that the looming threat of even baseless lawsuits will cause police officers to hesitate when they have to make a split-second or life-and-death decision.
Along these lines, the U.S. Supreme Court argued:
“Qualified immunity gives government officials breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments about open legal questions. When properly applied, it protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.”
What are the arguments against qualified immunity?
Critics of qualified immunity typically make 2 arguments against this defense:
- Qualified immunity is unlawful, and
- Qualified immunity is ineffective.
The argument that qualified immunity is unlawful is technical, but goes something like this:
The U.S. Supreme Court has primarily justified the doctrine of qualified immunity as an interpretation of common law immunities that were “well established” when Section 1983 was passed in 1871. In other words, the concept of qualified immunity was so well understood and accepted in the early 19th century that it should apply to cases brought under Section 1983, even though there are no references to qualified immunity in the actual language of Section 1983.
The problem with this argument is that, according to critics like University of Chicago Law School Professor William Baude, the concept of qualified immunity was NOT well accepted in the 19th century. In fact, both in the Founding Era (1774-1779) and throughout the 19th century, government agents who committed constitutional violations were typically held strictly liable.
Perhaps the more intriguing and approachable argument against qualified immunity is that it’s simply ineffective.
A number of lawyers, including UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz, have pointed out that qualified immunity doesn’t seem to satisfy the policy goals it aims to achieve.
For example, governments have paid 99.98% of the damages that plaintiffs have recovered in lawsuits alleging civil rights violations by law enforcement, undermining the U.S. Supreme Court’s concern that government officials would have to personally pay the damages.
For example, the city of Minneapolis paid the entire $27 million settlement in the wrongful death case filed by the family of George Floyd against 4 Minneapolis police officers.
What’s more, the doctrine of qualified immunity doesn’t appear to weed out frivolous lawsuits. When considering all cases brought under Section 1983, only 7 (0.6%) were dismissed at the motion to dismiss stage, and 31 (2.6%) were dismissed at summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds. In other words, most claims where qualified immunity applied were litigated through discovery and trial.
Finally, there is the concern among critics that qualified immunity may encourage government officials, such as police officers, to be more reckless.
As Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor stated:
“[Qualified immunity] sends an alarming signal to law enforcement officers and the public. It tells officers that they can shoot first and think later, and it tells the public that palpably unreasonable conduct will go unpunished.”
Do all states recognize qualified immunity?
In 2020, there was a growing call to limit or abolish the doctrine of qualified immunity. Although no meaningful changes have taken place at the federal level yet, members of Congress introduced a bill called The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 that aims to limit qualified immunity. What’s more, several recent Supreme Court decisions have suggested that the justices may be interested in reconsidering the issue.
Interestingly, some states have grown tired of waiting on the federal government or the U.S. Supreme Court to act and have taken matters into their own hands.
In New Mexico, Colorado, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York City, legislatures have passed a state-version of Section 1983 that explicitly prohibits the qualified immunity defense. Although these state laws don’t abolish qualified immunity at the federal level, they provide workarounds for plaintiffs to sue police officers in state court for damages.
Largest police wrongful death settlements
The vast majority of police shooting cases are settled before they ever get to trial. Here’s a look at some of the largest police shooting settlements in our country's history:
- George Floyd ($27 million). On May 25, 2020, the family of George Floyd, a 46-year-old man killed by Derek Chauvin, a Minnesota police officer who knelt on George’s neck and back for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, reached a settlement with the City of Minneapolis for $27 million.
- Bettie R. Jones ($16 million). Bettie R. Jones, a 55-year-old woman, was accidentally shot by a Chicago police officer on December 26, 2015, while trying to help the officer. The city ultimately settled with Bettie’s family for $16 million.
- Breonna Taylor ($12 million). On March 13, 2020, Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old woman, was shot to death in her bed by officers acting on a no-knock warrant. In September, the Louisville Metro Government (LMG) agreed to pay Breonna’s estate $12 million to settle a wrongful death claim.
|Police misconduct settlements|
|New York City||$170 million|
|Los Angeles||$33 million|
|Washington, D.C.||$13 million|
|San Francisco||$2.5 million|
Filing a lawsuit against a government official can be particularly challenging and not just because of the qualified immunity defense. When suing a government official, plaintiffs must follow certain procedures that can be ignored when filing a lawsuit against a private citizen.