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Qualified Immunity

An Idea Whose Time (to Fade Away) Has Come

Philadelphia civil rights lawyers at Williams Cedar discuss qualified immunityIn the wake of the Civil War, Congress passed powerful laws to protect against the civil rights violations that had become rampant during Reconstruction. Among these was the Civil Rights Act of 1871, better known as 42 U.S.C. §1983. §1983 provided monetary damages and other relief for victims whose constitutional rights were violated by “state actors,” including both real and bogus law enforcement officers. The law gave those victims a federal remedy for wrongs that could not be redressed under traditional state, or tort law.

In modern times, civil rights lawyers have utilized §1983 in a wide array of cases involving official misconduct, including the use of excessive force by police officers, false arrests, malicious prosecution and wrongful convictions. But as they have grown more conservative in recent years, many federal courts have imposed judicially created exceptions to civil rights liability and grafted artificial limitations onto the breadth and scope of §1983. Among the most far-reaching of these restrictions is the doctrine of “qualified immunity.”

In its early applications, qualified immunity protected officials from liability for acts that violated rights that were not yet fully developed or “clearly established” by the courts. In this way, decisions applying the doctrine served two purposes: it shielded officials who, though acting in good faith, crossed a “line” that they could not know existed, and 2) acted as a device for the courts to warn other officials that, in the future, the right in question could not be violated.

Unfortunately, there has been a tendency for courts to stretch qualified immunity well beyond its original underpinnings, leading them to immunize some police officers and others in authority from outright wrongdoing.

Think of some situations:

  • A police officer uses a “Taser” on a handcuffed arrestee;
  • A police officer fires his pistol into a fleeing automobile presenting no risk to him, killing a passenger;
  • A police department ignores multiple complaints from a woman and her neighbors about an abusive boyfriend with a gun, who eventually shoots her, leaving her paralyzed.

Any ordinary observer would be shocked to learn that the officers responsible for such conduct would be able to escape civil liability. But in each of the above scenarios, a defendant was granted qualified immunity, ending a claim for damages.

The unwarranted expansion of qualified immunity producing such results grows mainly out of two novel ideas trending in some federal courts: 1) that a right cannot be “clearly established” unless there has been a previous case based on facts identical to the ones in the present case; and 2) a right is not “clearly established” until the Supreme Court itself has articulated it. It is obvious that these theories serve primarily to curtail legal rights and protect behavior in which no reasonable officer could engage in good faith.

Recently, academic critics, legal advocates, and judges have been pointing out the problems caused by the unbridled application of qualified immunity. The issue will continue to arise in many cases brought under §1983, and plaintiffs’ attorneys will continue their efforts to fulfill the statute’s original purpose: compensating people harmed by the violation of their constitutional rights.

To speak to a dedicated Philadelphia civil rights lawyer at Williams Cedar, call 215-557-0099 today or complete our online contact form. From our offices in Philadelphia and Haddonfield, New Jersey, we represent clients nationwide.

By: Gerald J. Williams, Esq