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Questioning the merits of qualified immunity

Updated: Oct 17, 2020

Blanket protection for officers leaves little room for justice

By The Charger Account Editorial Staff Oct. 16, 2020

As school districts across the country, including San Jose Unified, reevaluate the status of their contracts with police departments, legislation governing police conduct also warrants investigation. When Breonna Taylor was fatally shot seven months ago, three police officers were present on the scene. Collectively, Louisville Metro Police Department Officers John Mattingly, Brett Hankison and Myles Cosgrove fired 32 shots on the night of her death, six of which hit her body. Even though Taylor died as a direct result of the officers’ actions, only one has been indicted by grand jury: Detective Brett Hankison, for a negligible wanton endangerment charge. With all three officers evading what many believe to be warranted manslaughter charges, questions have again risen over qualified immunity—the judicial doctrine of granting law enforcement officers immunity from civil lawsuits.

In the 1967 case Pierson v. Ray, the U.S. Supreme Court established qualified immunity to protect law enforcement from frivolous lawsuits and improve the efficiency of police operations by enabling officers to make split-second decisions. So long as qualified immunity does not violate “clearly defined” constitutional rights—the definition of which often depends on past court rulings for similar situations, if any—police officers are exempt from prosecution. However, in practice, qualified immunity protects law enforcement from truly egregious conduct, because ironically, “clearly defined” constitutional rights are actually ambiguous. Lawyers have also frequently turned down cases involving police brutality because of blanket protection through qualified immunity, as reported by Reuters.

Even without qualified immunity, numerous safeguards against such lawsuits have already been enacted

However, the concern of frivolous litigation, or baseless lawsuits with the sole purpose of harassment, does not pose a genuine risk to police officers. Even without qualified immunity, numerous safeguards against such lawsuits have already been enacted: according to the Cato Institute, litigation against law enforcement must be held to more stringent pleading standards, founded in good faith and are subject to early dismissal. Likewise, the Fourth Amendment already protects officers from legal repercussions for erroneous actions that are reasonable.

Concerns about ruinous financial burden are also unfounded: a New York University Law School study spanning 81 law enforcement agencies, including 44 of the nation’s largest, found that the government furnished 99.98 percent of the money paid to plaintiffs in police misconduct cases. Thus, even if a case bypasses qualified immunity, indemnification prevents the vast majority of officers from most, if not all, monetary culpability.

Complete abolition of qualified immunity would not be a perfect solution either; as predicted by a Columbia Law Review article by Joanna C. Schwartz, professor of law at the University of Calif, Los Angeles, its absence would not significantly increase the success rate of lawsuits against law enforcement nor allow for proliferation of groundless litigation.

While cases would be more efficiently handled, many irresponsible police officers would still fall through the cracks of the legal system.

While qualified immunity comes with good intentions—to equip law enforcement with the means to perform their duties—it denies litigants their right to a fair trial without genuinely benefitting the police. Officers cannot take personal responsibility for their behavior without the threat of material consequences to force them to maintain a higher degree of diligence in following constitutional guidelines.

As it stands, qualified immunity overcompensates for unlikely scenarios and fails to hold officers accountable for excessive violence. Especially considering other laws have rendered it unnecessary, qualified immunity has defeated the very purpose of law enforcement: justice.


About the Contributors

Kelly Cui


Kelly Cui is a senior and one of the Editors-in-Chief of The Charger Account. In her spare time, she likes to solve crosswords and knit.

Minji Kim


Minji Kim is a senior at Leland High School and is the Editor-in-Chief for School News, Investigative Report, and Feature School. She loves to spend her time watching Netflix and eating ice cream on a daily basis.

Sophia Lu


Sophia Lu is a senior and one of The Charger Account's Editors-In-Chief. She loves reading historical nonfiction, hiking in the Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve (especially on the Randol Trail) and sampling new foods in her free time. When not scouring Yelp for her next foodie destination, she can be found cheering on her hometown Golden State Warriors and San Francisco 49ers.

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