With Black Lives Matter’s protests against police brutality continuing to be a major theme in a turbulent year, the doctrine of qualified immunity is in the spotlight. Defense has long been a controversial doctrine among legal scholars and civil rights lawyers and has been expanded over the years to protect police officers who use violence against civilians from liability. At the federal level, a bill to end qualified immunity has made no progress since it was introduced in Congress.
In SCOTUS Review: Police Misconduct Under Section 1983, author and former Administrative Complaints Judge Wayne Beyer discussed several Supreme Court cases that have significantly influenced the qualified immunity doctrine in recent years. Here are three legal principles that both plaintiffs and defenders must observe:
Spectator requirements. Some police departments require officers to stop or intervene in the event of wrongdoing by other officers. To make the viewer liable, a plaintiff must demonstrate that (1) a law enforcement officer knew that his colleague was violating the plaintiff’s rights; (2) had a reasonable opportunity to prevent harm; and (3) the officer did not act (Stevenson v City of Seat Pleasant, 743 F.3d 411 (4th Cir. 2014).
Municipal liability. Plaintiffs attorneys may face municipal liability for “willful indifference” in recruitment (Board of Comm’rs by Bryan Cty. V. Brown, 520 US 397) and education (City of Canton, Ohio v. Harris, 489 US 378) assert. 1989), supervision and discipline. To exploit this plea, the plaintiffs’ attorneys must be able to establish an immediate cause.
Loss of life according to § 1983. Large settlements in publicly known cases raise questions about how deaths under §1983 are to be assessed. Practitioners need to know who is entitled to sue regarding the forum state’s survival and unjustified death, and the extent to which they have been used in Section 1983 actions. Plaintiffs may also advocate supplementary federal remedies such as “hedonic” harm for the loss of the victim’s life or non-economic loss to family members such as grief or loss of companionship. Under 42 USC §1988, federal courts can borrow under state law if they meet the compensation and deterrence goals of Section 1983.
Suggested Resources. In his program, Mr. Beyer provides a list of resources that lawyers can use to determine whether an officer’s behavior falls below the standard of police force best practices from leading organizations such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the Police Executive Research Forum, and the US Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice.
In the past few months, the Supreme Court rejected eight Petitions from Certiorari for qualified immunity cases, and no new qualified immunity cases are planned for the 2020-2021 period. This may be a relief for civil rights lawyers given the current composition of the Court, but we will certainly watch the Court for further developments.
To learn more about the Qualified Immunity Doctrine and for additional resources, read the full program here.
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This article was prepared with the help of Elsie Tan, a student at New York Law School.