When a person suffers a serious injury or the loss of a loved one due to police misconduct, they may file a civil rights lawsuit against the officer(s) and the department involved to hold those parties liable and recover financial compensation.
However, a legal doctrine called “qualified immunity” may protect law enforcement officials from civil lawsuits. Qualified immunity is a rule that limits victims of police misconduct from holding officers liable if they violate someone’s constitutional rights.
This rule came about during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, when thousands of recently emancipated African Americans were victims of violence and lynches committed by mobs such as the Ku Klux Klan and police officers alike. Congress then passed the Civil Rights Act of 1871 to give victims of racial terrorism to take legal action against law enforcement officials who violate their constitutional rights.
But in 1967, the Supreme Court limited this right by creating qualified immunity. Since then, this doctrine has been instrumental in denying victims of deadly and violent police misconduct from recovering monetary damages.
According to the qualified immunity doctrine, victims must argue that immunity does not apply because of the following two circumstances:
The victim’s constitutional rights were violated because of an officer’s unlawful conduct, and
The officer knows or should have known that their actions violated “clearly established” law, due to a previous court case that had already ruled similar police actions are unlawful.
While the first element is often met, the second element provides a significant obstacle for victims to prove because courts generally require a nearly identical case to be considered as a “clearly established” precedent. In other words, if the exact details of a case do not match any other case on the books, there is no clearly established law to hold the officer accountable for misconduct.
Therefore, qualified immunity gives officers a powerful shield against civil lawsuits. Victims are typically required to prove that the officer’s conduct was unlawful by a more general law.