Many debates have erupted since the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and systemic racism started. A significant argument that has broken out revolves around the topic of “qualified immunity.”
On Juneteenth, June 19th, Colorado made huge strides in order to combat police brutality and passed a bill that bans qualified immunity for police officials.
According to Cornell’s Law school, “qualified immunity protects a government official from lawsuits alleging that the official violated a plaintiff‘s rights, only allowing suits where officials violated a “clearly established” statutory or constitutional right.”
While this doctrine may have not been a huge factor in the George Floyd case, it is an important one that has a lot of weight in many other police brutality cases.
The phrasing “clearly established right” is particularly important when understanding what qualified immunity truly means. Essentially, unless there has been a case in the past that is practically identical to any new upcoming police brutality cases, the court can deem that it was not a “clearly established right.” Therefore, the police officer is protected by qualified immunity. In other words, despite having constitutional rights that have already been established, police officers are practically shielded from these pre-existing laws unless they have already been considered unlawful by the courts in previous cases with other officers.
Qualified immunity puts a halt to one of the only defense systems the general public has against police officers—accountability.
For instance, in 2009 pregnant Malika Brooks was driving past a school zone when Seattle police stopped her for speeding. After a few attempts of trying to get her to sign a Notice of Infraction, an officer tased her three times in order to get her out of her vehicle so that she could be arrested.
Eventually, Brooks took these officers to court and filed a case against them and the city for assault and use of excessive force. Although it was unconstitutional for these officers to tase a pregnant woman three times in one minute, the courts granted these officers qualified immunity since it was not “clear” to all officers that this would be something unlawful.
Police officers must be held accountable for misconduct and law-breaking behaviors. It may be their responsibility to “police” our communities, but who is monitoring the police?
Written by Shantell Dasilva