We often hear arguments for and against qualified immunity. What are the justifications for condemning this constitutional privilege? How would its abolition affect communities of color? What about victims of police misconduct? How would we know if a police officer is guilty of misconduct? In this article, we’ll examine the justifications for condemning qualified immunity. And we’ll examine what would happen if qualified immunity were abolished.
Justifications for condemning qualified immunity
The Supreme Court is on a crusade to limit civil rights lawsuits against law enforcement officials. The doctrine has been described as robust, protecting all but those who are incompetent or who knowingly violate the law. Recent decisions have expanded the doctrine’s scope. For example, the Supreme Court has granted certiorari in several cases where lower courts denied immunity to officers. The Supreme Court has reversed every lower court ruling in each of these cases.
The principle that qualified immunity protects law enforcement officers from being sued for constitutional violations was reaffirmed in Pierson v. Ray in 1967. In that case, the court determined that a police officer acting in good faith could not be sued for making a false arrest. The Warren Court also cited precedents that had established qualified immunity for government defendants, which broadened it to include public officials acting in “good faith.”
Impact of abolishing qualified immunity on communities of color
In the wake of several high-profile shootings and alleged police misconduct, activists call for the abolition of qualified immunity. In 2010, a federal court granted immunity to a Georgia deputy who fatally shot a 10-year-old boy while trying to apprehend a family dog. In 2013, a California police department was awarded immunity from lawsuits after stealing $101,380 in cash and $125,000 in rare coins from a local business. Both police departments were armed with warrants but were protected by qualified immunity.
Many of these cases have come from communities of color, and the abolition of qualified immunity would help ensure that a fair trial is available for all victims. Unfortunately, the current system of qualified immunity has several legal flaws. It fails to provide sufficient protection for victims of official misconduct and often leaves people without recourse. Moreover, the Supreme Court had framed qualified immunity as having been established in 1871, when Congress presumably intended to abolish it. But that does not mean the common law of 1871 included general immunities for state agents, which may have justified the doctrine of qualified immunity in the first place.
Impact of abolishing qualified immunity on economic equality
Abolishing qualified immunity may have many benefits, including improved policing. In communities where qualified immunity is abolished, victims of police misconduct can pursue justice. If more officers are criminally prosecuted, this could not be an issue. Abolition of qualified immunity could even prevent such abuses from occurring. Nonetheless, it should be kept in mind that such an action could have negative consequences on economic equality.
The constitutionality of qualified immunity is questionable, given that the Supreme Court created it. Many argue that Congress never intended qualified immunity and that the court erred in creating it out of whole cloth. But academic research shows that this protection is unnecessary. In the landmark case of Tanvir v. Tanzin, the court explained that qualified immunity resulted from an obscure Supreme Court decision and that it should not be upheld as a fundamental tenet of our Constitution.
Impact of abolishing qualified immunity on victims of police misconduct
Many law enforcement officials in Colorado are concerned about the impact of abolishing qualified immunity, citing the law’s unintended consequences. Harrison is particularly concerned about the negative impact of qualified immunity on police morale and performance. A Denver Post investigation of statewide police statistics found that officers are leaving the profession at a lower rate by 2020 than before. But not all officials are worried. Some say qualified immunity is important.
While eliminating qualified immunity may not solve all police abuse problems, it would help eliminate a major source of conflict: the lack of accountability for police officers. The government or its insurers pay for almost all judgments against government employees. Eliminating qualified immunity would not result in a huge shift in these statistics, the change would not create a flood of frivolous lawsuits and make police officers virtually impossible to find.