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Understanding Why Qualified Immunity Is So Controversial

West Palm Beach Business Litigation Attorney 2023-01-26 16-49-13

We often hear about cases of police misconduct or police brutality in the news. But then we also hear about a concept called qualified immunity—a topic so debated, that it even has been mentioned in presidential candidate debates. But what is qualified immunity, and what does it have to do with police misconduct or brutality?

What is Immunity?

Any time the law provides immunity, it means that a victim cannot sue for his or her injuries. It is an absolute bar to recovery of any type of damages. That means that to get compensation for injuries, the victim must overcome the immunity by showing that it does not apply.

Qualified Immunity

Qualified immunity applies to all government actors—not just police officers—but it has widespread application in police brutality injury cases.

Qualified immunity says that if an officer does something in the field that breaks the law, unless the law has previously established that the officer’s actions are illegal,, that the officer cannot be sued for what he or she does. An officer is excused from any behavior, unless there is already a law or a case that has previously said that the behavior of the officer is illegal.

The logic of the immunity makes sense—officers are not attorneys, and shouldn’t have to make an on the spot analysis of whether what they are doing is legal or illegal. The law presumes it would be unfair to hold an officer liable for an action if there was no way, in advance, the officer could know that the action has previously been declared illegal.

But There’s a Problem

That makes some sense. But the problem is that in reality, almost no two cases are the same. A police officer or department or a city can always differentiate the fact patterns of any two cases. That means that immunity almost always applies, excusing almost any type of police behavior.

Let’s say an officer chases down a suspect running down an alley who is holding a knife. The officer hits the suspect with a club on the back of the head. The suspect sues, saying that the police used excessive force. Now, imagine there was a previous case, where a suspect was running down a busy street, carrying a gun, and the officer’s actions in that case, who also hit the suspect over the head were found to be excessive.

Are the two cases so similar, that the officer in the most recent case can be held liable for his actions? Or  are they different enough that qualified immunity should apply?

No Two Situations are Exactly the Same

This is the problem with qualified immunity. How different do cases have to be? Many courts, in a desire to protect officers as much as possible, almost always find factual scenarios different. But this hurts victims, and almost gives officers free reign to do what they want in the field, under the excuse that they had no idea what they were doing was illegal.

Have you been injured by a police officer, or any government actor? Call the West Palm Beach personal injury attorneys at Pike & Lustig today.




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