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Understanding Qualified Immunity

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Jun 07, 2024

Qualified immunity has protected police officers and government officials from being held accountable for violating someone's constitutional rights for decades.

The doctrine of qualified immunity allows state and local officials to avoid personal consequences connected to their professional interactions unless they violate "clearly established law."

Qualified Immunity
The doctrine of qualified immunity protects police officers from lawsuits in most cases.

Police officers have repeatedly used this doctrine to escape accountability and civil liability for engaging in violent and abusive acts against people.

This typically means that without a case with nearly identical facts on the record, officials can violate someone's rights without being held personally responsible for their actions.

Qualified immunity is a judge-created rule protecting government officials, including police officers, when they are sued. It says that officials who violate other people's constitutional rights can only be held responsible if a previous court decision, with very similar facts, resulted in other officials being held accountable.

Qualified immunity has been used in numerous cases to protect officials who have engaged in various types of misconduct, including fatal shootings, police brutality, sexual misconduct, and more.

Some say that if qualified immunity is abolished, there will be a mass increase in frivolous lawsuits targeting officers or that police will become bankrupt for doing their jobs.

If someone violates your rights under the law or causes loss, you can sue them in court. However, when the perpetrator is a police officer acting in their duties, the government protects them from lawsuits unless a constitutional right has been violated.

This concept is known as qualified immunity, and it is typically the first defense raised in cases involving alleged police misconduct.

When Does Qualified Immunity Not Apply?

Notably, a police officer does not have absolute immunity from liability. If you or your attorney can prove that law enforcement violated an established constitutional right, qualified immunity does not apply.

When Does Qualified Immunity Not Apply?

Qualified immunity is a form of legal immunity that protects government officials from lawsuits alleging they violated a plaintiff's rights. Still, lawsuits are allowed if officials violate a clearly established statutory or constitutional right.

Qualified immunity balances the need to hold public officials accountable when exercising power irresponsibly and to shield them from harassment, distraction, and liability in performing their reasonable duties.

Courts will consider whether a hypothetical reasonable government official would have known that the defendant's conduct violated the plaintiff's rights. They will apply the law in force at the time of the alleged violation, not the law in effect when the court considers the case.

Notably, qualified immunity is not immunity from having to pay monetary damages but rather from going through the costs of a trial. Courts must resolve qualified immunity issues before discovery early in the case process.

What is the History of Qualified Immunity?

Qualified immunity shields government officials from being held personally liable for constitutional violations, such as violating a person's civil rights, unless the official violated a clearly established statutory or constitutional right that a reasonable person would have known.

Originating from the federal Civil Rights Act of 1871, codified in Title 42 U.S.C. 1983, it has evolved through numerous court decisions over the decades.

The intent behind qualified immunity was to balance two critical interests. To hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when performing their duties.

What is the Legal Application?

In practice, qualified immunity says that a law enforcement officer can only be personally liable for damages in a civil lawsuit if they violate a clearly established right when the incident occurred. The crucial legal standards to determine whether qualified immunity applies include the following questions:

  • Did the police officer's conduct violate a constitutional right?
  • Was the right clearly established when the misconduct occurred?

To be "clearly established," there must be sufficient precedent within the jurisdiction, which means earlier court decisions should have found similar conduct under similar circumstances to be a constitutional violation.

This requirement is typically a substantial roadblock for plaintiffs as it necessitates a high level of specificity. However, if you can demonstrate that both criteria apply, the police officer cannot claim qualified immunity and might be held personally liable for violating your rights.

Notably, qualified immunity only applies to lawsuits against government officials as individuals, not against the government for damages caused by their actions.

While qualified immunity often appears in police officer cases, it also applies to most other executive branch officials.

Judges, prosecutors, legislators, and other government officials do not receive qualified immunity but are protected by other immunity doctrines.

The United States Supreme Court upheld immunity in certain functions for some government officials, such as the president and similar officials. This doctrine shields those people from criminal prosecution and lawsuits when their conduct is within the scope of their jobs.

How to Apply Qualified Immunity in California

This doctrine can complicate the pursuit of justice for victims of alleged police misconduct in California. It not only imposes a rigorous standard for proving a violation of clearly established law but also potentially limits the avenues available for redress.

Qualified Immunity in California

It's crucial to understand that qualified immunity applies only to civil cases seeking monetary damages against government officials in their capacities. It does not protect officials from all forms of accountability nor applies to criminal prosecutions or lawsuits against governmental entities for systemic issues.

In response to calls for police reform, especially in cases of police brutality, California has taken steps to address public concerns.

Legislation and court rulings in recent years have attempted to clarify the scope of qualified immunity, aiming to ensure victims of police misconduct have a pathway to justice.

California law explicitly restricts law enforcement and other government employees from claiming qualified immunity in some situations, such as the following:

  • Charges of false arrest or imprisonment. Penal Code 847 PC says that when law enforcement commits false arrest or imprisonment of a civilian, qualified immunity does not apply because they had no probable cause.
  • Violations of the Bane Act. Under California's Tom Bane Civil Rights Act, citizens can sue government officials who violate their constitutional rights through "threat, intimidation, or coercion."

Other constitutional rights violations that could disqualify police officers from claiming qualified immunity include the following:

  • Illegal search and seizure that violates the right to privacy and no seizure without probable cause.
  • Police brutality or excessive force that violates the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
  • Other crimes committed against citizens, such as sexual assault.

California law continues to clarify the boundaries of acceptable versus unacceptable police conduct. To defeat a qualified immunity defense will require sophisticated knowledge and experience.

Thus, anyone seeking justice in cases where qualified immunity is an issue must seek guidance from an experienced attorney.

An attorney with a clear understanding of governing qualified immunity can assist in articulating constitutional rights violations and effectively navigating the judicial process to hold officials accountable for their actions. Contact our law firm for more information. Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles, CA.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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