The recent police misconduct cases in major cities, like Philadelphia, have raised questions about qualified immunity as an acceptable legal doctrine in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and around the country. Our lawyers represent individuals charged with crimes and offenses in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
These clients and their families often have questions about qualified immunity when they believe a police officer or other government official has violated their constitutional rights during an arrest, an illegal search or perhaps during police processing following an arrest. Every case is different but we often receive very similar questions from families. Here are my answers to the top 3 questions regarding qualified immunity.
What is qualified immunity?
Qualified immunity is a special protection for government worker’s (police officers included) that the Supreme Court created in the case of Harlow v. Fitzgerald. This case didn’t involve a police officer, but rather President Nixon’s Whitehouse aides who were sued by a whistleblower after he spoke out against the Pentagon’s Weapons Program. In this decision, the Supreme Court made all government workers immune from constitutional liability. Qualified immunity applies to all government workers whether local, state, or federal. This includes police officers, prison guards, school administrators, IRS agents, elected officials, and everyone else who works for the government, as well as private individuals who act jointly with government workers, such as private prison operators and house arrest monitoring companies. Under the qualified immunity doctrine, a government worker is only accountable for violating someone’s rights if a Court had previously ruled that it was clearly established that those actions were unconstitutional. If no such decision existed, that government official is immune, even if that government employee intentionally, maliciously or reasonably violated the law or constitution. Qualified immunity only applies in civil lawsuits, not criminal prosecutions.
Do courts need to decide whether the constitution was violated before granting immunity?
No. The “clearly established test”, requires a victim to identify a nearly identical earlier decision by the Supreme Court or Federal Appeals Court in the same jurisdiction. The victim or the victim’s family must convince the Court that Qualified Immunity doesn’t apply. There was a recent case where a police officer shot a ten-year old child while trying to shoot a non-threatening family dog. In that case, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the police officer was entitled to qualified immunity because no earlier case had held that it was unconstitutional for a police officer to recklessly fire his gun into a group of children without justification. This means that the officer was not only immune from liability, but that same officer could act the same way again and would still be entitled to qualified immunity. Qualified immunity applies even when officials intentionally or recklessly violate the law. The primary consideration is whether an earlier Court case specifically states that the particular action of an official was unconstitutional.
Will the Supreme Court ever overrule its decision regarding qualified immunity?
Qualified immunity isn’t found in the Constitution and the Supreme Court, originally considered such liability essential to safeguard to constitutional rights of citizens and hold government workers liable for their unlawful or unconstitutional acts, even those done with good intention.
The Court has reviewed dozens of cases involving qualified immunity, but at this point is not willing to reconsider the doctrine. Recently the Court ruled that some violations are so obvious that they do not require an earlier Court decision to provide government workers with fair warning. In that case (Taylor v. Riojas), the Court adopted the following:
- Damages for constitutional violations are important and often necessary.
- Damages for constitutional violations have historic consequences.
- It is not the Court’s place to import policy decisions or concerns in its decision.
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