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HomeOpinionIf We Want Better Policing, Eliminate Qualified Immunity

If We Want Better Policing, Eliminate Qualified Immunity

NEW YORK, USA - June 10, 2018: The New York City Police Department (NYPD) police officers performing his duties on the streets of Manhattan. (Photo: Bumble Dee/AdobeStock)
NEW YORK, USA - June 10, 2018: The New York City Police Department (NYPD) police officers performing his duties on the streets of Manhattan. (Photo: Bumble Dee/AdobeStock)
NEW YORK, USA – June 10, 2018: The New York City Police Department (NYPD) police officers performing his duties on the streets of Manhattan. (Photo: Bumble Dee/AdobeStock)

Yesterday’s column focused on how police unions protect the bad apples who misbehave and therefore cause some people to resent law enforcement, especially in the minority community.

Curtailing the role of those unions would be an important step to create better bonds between the police and the citizenry.

Today’s column will explain the need to repeal or substantially curtail the doctrine of “qualified immunity,” which was created by courts to protect cops who trample on people’s rights.

It’s not a complete answer, just as fixing the union problem isn’t a complete answer. But getting rid of the doctrine at least will give citizens the opportunity to bring lawsuits when cops disregard their civil liberties. This tweet is a good summary for those who don’t have time to dig into the topic.

But hopefully you do have time to investigate this issue. Here are excerpts from four articles about problems with qualified immunity.

This is not a new issue for libertarians and principled conservatives. Glenn Reynolds pointed out the injustice of the doctrine back in 2013 in a column for USA Today.

David French condemned the practice in a piece for National Review in 2018.

Judges created qualified immunity, and they can end it. It’s past time to impose true accountability on public servants who violate citizens’ constitutional rights. First, some background. Since 1871, federal law has permitted Americans to file lawsuits against public officials who violate their constitutional rights. It’s a powerful tool that essentially deputizes members of the public to defend their own liberties.

…However, after generations of judges have interpreted the statute, the phrase “shall be liable” has come to mean “may occasionally be liable.” …In 1982, …the law changed. In a case called Harlow v. Fitzgerald, the Supreme Court concocted the modern doctrine of qualified immunity. …As the doctrine developed, to prove that a right is clearly established, the plaintiff generally had to find and cite a remarkably similar case, with nearly identical facts, decided by a court of controlling jurisdiction. …the entire notion of “clearly established law” rests on a series of absurd, fantastical premises. Are we really to believe that a police officer doesn’t know he shouldn’t pound on the wrong door and blow away the innocent occupant unless a court said so in a case, say, five years before?

‘End Qualified Immunity’ by David French, National Review, September 2018

Writing for Reason, Professor Ilya Somin explains how fixing this bad bit of judge-made law could improve policing.

…there is much that can be done to curb police abuses. …The problem is not that police officers are unusually bad people. It’s that they have bad incentives, under which they are rarely held accountable for abuses. Those incentives can and should be altered. An important first step would be to get rid of the legal doctrine of “qualified immunity,” under which law enforcement officers are immune from suits for violating citizens’ constitutional rights…

The Supreme Court interprets the term “clearly established” so narrowly that officers routinely get away with horrendous abuses… Qualified immunity is not required by the Constitution or even by a federal statute. It is a purely judge-made doctrine made up by the Supreme Court itself in a misguided effort to protect law enforcement officers from excessive litigation. …Both Justice Clarence Thomas, the Court’s most conservative member, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the most liberal, have been severely critical of qualified immunity. There is a real chance they can persuade at least three of their colleagues to take the same view. …state and local governments might respond by indemnifying police officers for the damages they have to pay in such cases. But even if that happens, it would still be a step in the right direction. Indemnification costs money that many local governments will be loathe to pay. They will therefore have an incentive to crack down on abusive officers, particularly repeat offenders who routinely force authorities to pay out large sums…

‘How to Curb Police Abuses—And How Not to’ by Professor Ilya Somin, Reason, May 2020

Thank goodness for Clarence Thomas. Not only is he one of the leaders in trying to address qualified immunity, he’s also a leader in the campaign to get rid of the odious practice of asset forfeiture, which effectively creates an incentive for government to steal private property.

Writing for the Bulwark, Clark Neilly adds his two cents to the discussion.

In determining the relationship between government and governed, one of the most important decisions a society can make is how accountable those who wield official power must be to those against whom that power is wielded. Congress made a clear choice in that regard when it passed the Enforcement Act of 1871, which we now call “Section 1983”… Simply put, Section 1983 creates a standard of strict liability by providing that state actors “shall be liable to the party injured” for “the deprivation of any rights.” Thus, if a police officer walks up to your house and peeks inside one of your windows without a warrant—a clear violation of your Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches—he is liable to you for the violation of that right. …many conservatives…abandon their stated commitment to textualism and embrace an “interpretation” of Section 1983 that is utterly divorced from its text. The vehicle for this…“living statutory interpretivism” is the Supreme Court’s qualified immunity doctrine, which judicially amends Section 1983 to provide that the standard for liability will no longer be the deprivation of “any rights”—as Congress expressly provided—but rather the deprivation of any “clearly established” rights. …the only avenue of accountability for most victims of police misconduct is a civil rights lawsuit that they themselves can initiate without the largesse of some prosecutor or citizen review board.

Last but not least, in a new column for USA Today, Patrick Jaicomo and Anya Bidwell of the Institute for Justice explain some of the legal issues.

The Supreme Court created qualified immunity in 1982. With that novel invention, the court granted all government officials immunity for violating constitutional and civil rights… Although innocuous sounding, the clearly established test is a legal obstacle nearly impossible to overcome. It requires a victim to identify an earlier decision by the Supreme Court, or a federal appeals court in the same jurisdiction holding that precisely the same conduct under the same circumstances is illegal or unconstitutional. If none exists, the official is immune. …When the Supreme Court conceived qualified immunity, it promised that the rule would not provide a “license to lawless conduct” for government officials. Plainly, it has.

‘Police act like laws don’t apply to them because of ‘qualified immunity.’ They’re right.’ by Patrick Jaicomo and Anya Bidwell, USA Today, May 2020

And here are some examples they cite.

Written by

Daniel J. Mitchell is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, and a top expert on tax reform and supply-side tax policy. Mitchell’s articles can be found in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Investor’s Business Daily, and the Washington Times. He is the author of "The Flat Tax: Freedom, Fairness, Jobs, and Growth," and co-author of "Global Tax Revolution: The Rise of Tax Competition and the Battle to Defend It."

Latest comments

  • could not agree more, as example I posit that were I granted immunity from prosecution for bank robbery guess what I’d be doing Monday morning?

    • Indeed. Our politicians, government employees and the military are a top to bottom crime gang. Pay attention to what happens, not what the Tv tells you.

  • Couldn`t disagree more. If you are trying to get rid of cops all together then it`s a good idea. A LEO would go bankrupt defending himself from frivolous lawsuits once you open that floodgate.

    Being a cop is a public service not a private sector job. You want me to go out and deal with the dregs of our society on a daily basis then you are going to provide cover for me. If you don`t like the way I do the job then fire me…..but pulling my protection from the same dregs suing me is idiotic.

    • ALL cops will quit without this bogus, judicially-legislated Frankenstein? Ridiculous!

      Since liability is usually joint, the city/county/state’s insurance carrier — which does it now — would still defend the officer. None would go bankrupt.

      The standard should be that of a reasonable person specifically trained in the constitutional rights of we the people. Not a village idiot who needs a specific example of not being allowed to recklessly shot a kid while angrily aiming for the neighbor’s dog because you’re exploding with roid-rage.

      Also, once these insurance carriers start getting popped, they will tighten-up the coverage requirements and the city/county/state departments will suddenly begin firing officers who are a problem instead of acquiescing to the unions and burying their misconduct.

      Will there be a short-term increase in lawsuits? Maybe. However, if some sort of reform is also instituted whereby the loser pays the winner’s attorney fees, frivolous lawsuits will disappear overnight. The ambulance chasers love taking their free shots but make them add some skin in the game and 99% will go into another line of business.

      That’s a win-win!

    • That is what the government employee crime gang does to its citizens,

  • White privilege is simply majority rule masquerading as racism nothing more (sic) ; They want to get rid of oil? Are we to burn trees’ instead (sic)? Green new deal is not in our best interests. What we are looking at is called “State Capture” where “Inland Piracy” is taking place on our shore’s. God Bless the United States of America. ” All laws repugnant to the constitution are null and void”
    Marbury / Madison 1803

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