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What Is Qualified Immunity?


When police cause people injury, or there are incidents of police brutality, there are often calls to sue the police departments or cities, and hold them responsible for the excess force that the officers may have used. But in every case, there is a term that tends to come up that has become quite controversial: Qualified immunity. In fact, qualified immunity has been so controversial that it even often becomes an issue in political elections.

What is Qualified Immunity?

On its surface, qualified immunity seems pretty easy to understand. The law says that a police officer cannot be sued for something they do in the field if there is no existing law, or prior case, that says that the officer’s behavior is illegal.

In concept, this makes sense. Officers can only be held to know what has already been decided by courts. It would be unfair to hold them liable for something they do, when there has not been a prior case or a law that says that what they did was illegal. Officers cannot do their job if they always had to stop and conduct a legal analysis as to whether what they are doing can get them in trouble or not.

So What’s the Problem?

But the problem with qualified immunity is that if you look hard enough and focus on every detail, almost every situation is different. Officers who face liability simply need to find one minor detail that is different from a previously decided case, and they get immunity.

As an example, pretend that two years ago an officer was found liable for shooting a suspect in the back. The suspect was holding a knife, and was 40 feet away from the officer and had just committed a robbery.

Today, a different officer shot a different suspect in the back. This suspect was holding a gun and was 50 feet away and had just waved the gun at someone.

Is today’s situation different? There are minor details in the two cases. But are they minor enough? The officer will certainly argue his case, with the differences in the crime and the weapon and the distances, make the situation so different from the previously decided case, that the officer should get immunity.

Should Immunity End?

You can see how officers and cities can always argue differences which shield them from liability. Many politicians want to end qualified immunity, seeing it as an excuse for police brutality. And the immunity is a huge legal hurdle that victims of brutality must overcome, in order to win their cases.

In fact, the immunity actually applies to all government actors; in some cases, teachers accused of causing injury have argued for immunity under these same principles, although it is of course police officers who face the most scrutiny when it comes to liability lawsuits.

If you are a victim of police brutality or are injured by any government actor, call The Law Office of Joseph Linnehan Jr. for help. Call our Boston personal injury lawyers today at 617-275-4200.




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