Police Misconduct is Often Protected by Qualified Immunity
Pretend for a moment that you are a victim of police brutality. Law enforcement has overstepped their bounds, used excessive force, and caused you serious injury. You are eventually released and never charged for whatever it was that you were arrested for. You file a lawsuit. Why won’t the city or the police department simply offer to settle your case, given that it seems like you were the victim of clear cut excessive force?
The answer lies in a constitutional doctrine called qualified immunity. Immunity, as the name implies, simply means that someone or an entity cannot be sued. They are shielded from lawsuits or having to pay damages.
In the context of law enforcement and police brutality cases, qualified immunity often protects officers from their otherwise illegal behavior. Qualified immunity makes law enforcement (and any other parties that may be liable, such as the city) immune from being sued unless they violate a “clearly established” right as is defined by the law that exists at the time.
The History of Immunity
Qualified immunity began innocently enough. At first it was created to protect public officials who were discharging their duties in good faith. The law recognized that police officers (and other government officials) are not attorneys and should not be legally required to make on the spot legal judgments in the field.
But the law soon changed, eliminating the good faith requirement. Instead, the U.S. Supreme Court applied qualified immunity unless there was a clearly established right being violated by law enforcement. Thus, the question turned to whether there was a prior case that had similar facts that would indicate that the officer’s conduct was illegal. If there was not, the officer could not be sued.
Identical Cases are Hard to Find
Qualified immunity shifts the focus from whether or not someone’s rights have been violated, to reviewing case law to see if there is a prior case that closely factually matches the current situation. If not, immunity will often apply.
For example, there may be a case where law enforcement breaks into a home without a warrant, and “tazes” an innocent man who is not resisting arrest. Days later, an officer may do the exact same thing, except instead of being “tazed,” the innocent man is beaten with a stick.
This sounds like a minor difference. Yet, Courts could say that these two situations are not the same, and thus, the police officer did not have clearly established prior law to tell him or her that the behavior was illegal.
At least one presidential candidate has suggested doing away with qualified immunity. Whether that ever happens, and whether it is a good idea to eliminate the doctrine entirely, at least the issue is being brought to light so people can see how the doctrine is affecting victims of police brutality.
Understand your rights if police have used excessive force. Contact the Alabama police misconduct attorneys at Lasseter Law Firm today to discuss whether you have a cause of action for damages.