from the actual-accountability-is-still-just-a-dream dept
The judicial construct known as qualified immunity will continue to make it harder for people to obtain redress for rights violations… at least for the time being. While there has been a more sustained movement to reform law enforcement across the nation, thanks to cops doing the sort of stuff they’ve been doing for decades, qualified immunity seems particularly bulletproof.
It probably seemed like a good idea at the time. It provided government employees a way to avoid being entangled in frivolous litigation based on unsustainable allegations of rights violations. But since that point, it has morphed into an easy button for civil suits, a route cops can use to escape accountability for actual rights violations so long as they violate rights in a way courts haven’t previously declared an obvious rights violation.
Last year, as protests against police brutality raged around the nation, federal legislators offered up a reform bill that would have altered qualified immunity, changing it from a de facto defense to something officers would actually have to prove in court. Rather than just offer up a motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity, officers would have to show their rights violations were performed in good faith, using more than a couple of boilerplate sentences. Evidence and justifications would need to be offered and, given the lack of an early out, more civil rights cases would subject officers to a jury of their peers, rather than a rote recitation of Supreme Court decisions before granting a dismissal.
Of all the things cops want to hold onto, qualified immunity is at the top of the list. Their legal reps — housed in numerous police unions around the nation — have an even greater desire to see this doctrine remain intact. These two entities hold a lot of power, and have held this power for years. And there’s a certain contingent of legislators, at every level, who will never do anything that might be perceived as being anti-cop. So, the struggle continues. And, for the moment, hopes of seeing qualified immunity rolled back at the federal level have died along with the reform bill that once threatened this extra right granted to government employees.
Police reform negotiators are no longer considering changes to a controversial legal doctrine known as “qualified immunity,” according to three sources familiar with the matter.
Qualified immunity, which shields police officers from civil liability for misdeeds, has remained one of the main points of contention in the police reform negotiations. It being taken off the table could make the final product tough to sell to progressives, who want to see it scrapped altogether and have been outspoken about their demands to change the doctrine. But Republicans have been firm that they have no interest in getting rid of qualified immunity.
What’s being offered now is a “slimmed down” version. It appears it only needed to lose the qualified immunity alteration to get back to its fighting weight. Republicans refuse to budge on this point, making it all but impossible to move forward with the bill with this intact.
Some have suggested simply shifting the legal burden from cops to their employers in hopes of reducing police union opposition to qualified immunity reform. But that wouldn’t solve the problem. It would only relocate it. And it would codify qualified immunity, making it that much more difficult to roll back in the future. As of now, it’s solely a construct of the Supreme Court, albeit one that has considerable power.
For the moment, qualified immunity remains alive and well, an enabler of rights abuses by government employees. As long as it remains alive, cops will continue to abuse rights with near impunity. But, as long as cops continue to do that, they will continue to provide more motivation and ammo for those seeking to strip away this immunity judges have granted to far too many dangerously underqualified law enforcement officers.