Understanding Qualified Immunity for Police in 2020

From a legal perspective, both criminal defense attorneys and civil rights attorneys represent individuals from all walks of life on a regular basis.   

This can include representing other lawyers, doctorsjanitors and cashiers, and more.   

Howeverone thing that distinguishes representing these clients listed above from government employees is the legal theory of qualified immunity. 

What is “Qualified Immunity?” 

Qualified Immunity is a defense to violations of individuals’ constitutional rights that is only available to government employees.

Basically, qualified immunity means that a public official is immune from lawsuits unless their exact conduct has already been ruled unconstitutional in a previous case.

Small variations can result in a case being thrown out.

Qualified immunity is available to government sanitation workers, government inspectors, even government doctors who work in government hospitals.  However, this clause is most known for its implications on the accountability of police officers.

In order to have a full understanding of qualified immunity, including: 

  • its application, 
  • how it came about, and 
  • its impact on society and the current situation in the United States and abroad 

… we believe that it is important that everyone first understands what necessitated the idea of qualified immunity from its inception. 

“Sovereign Immunity” 

As a starting point, “qualified immunity” is considered a form of “sovereign immunity that protects government officials from being held personally liable for discretionary actions performed within the official capacity – unless their actions clearly violate established federal law. 

“Acting in Good Faith” 

Qualified immunity (in its origins) was meant to protect government employees or government officials who act in good faith and give them a level of isolation from lawsuits and financial liability related to those acts. 

14th Amendment Implications 

Qualified Immunity is not a free-standing defensebut a defense to civil liability for government employees that is directly related to the rights and protections offered by the 14th amendment of the United States Constitution.  

The 14th amendment of the United States Constitution was ratified in 1868 and offered what secured citizenship to everyone born or naturalized in the United States including the freed slaves.  

The 14th amendment also guaranteed every United States citizen equal protection and equal rights under the laws of the United States.  

The Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 

In 1871 – in order to give the 14th amendment of the United States constitution some force – Congress enacted what is known as the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871.  

Among the protections offered by that Congressional Act was an authorization by Congress that gave every American the right to sue public officials who violated their legal rights.  

During the time that these enactments were made, there were several egregious acts being committed against free slaves – from discrimination to outright murders – with no effective enforcement mechanism in place.  

It was understood at the time of the enactment of the Ku Klux Klan Act that the legislative intent of the Act was to protect every citizen of the United States and not exclude any sector of the United States or state government from suit based upon the violation of a citizen’s constitutional rights. 

42 U.S.C. Section 1983 

Eventually, after the turn of the century, Congress further qualified portions of the Ku Klux Klan act into what is currently known as section 1983.  

When enacting what became 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, Congress elected to begin that statute with the words every person and continued to describe who every person would be.

What Congress described was any local government official acting under the color of state law rule or regulation who violated a citizen’s constitutional right would be held liable under the provisions of 1983. 

Pierson v. Ray  

386 US 547 (1967) 

Despite Congress’ clear expression of all-inclusive language, in 1967, the United States Supreme Court in Pearson v. Ray decided that the provisions of 1983 should include a carve-out that protected government officials who conducted government affairs “in good faith.”

In the case of Pearson v. Ray, the matter originated in Mississippi and involved both African-American and white members of the clergy who had engaged in an extensive prayer march to Mississippi with the intent to utilize the waiting area of a bus terminal in Mississippi that was designated for whites only.  

The clergy members who were peacefully protesting were all arrested and charged with violating a Mississippi criminal statue.  

The clergy members initially waived their rights to a jury trial and proceeded to a trial-by-judge.

Each of them was found guilty by the trial judge and given the maximum sentence allowed by the criminal statute – which was four months.  

During the pendency of the appeals of their conviction – as the case made its way to the United States Supreme Court based upon a 1983 lawsuit that had been filed in relation to their arrest – the criminal statue for which they were convicted had been deemed to be applied unconstitutionally.  

So the question was put before the members of the United States Supreme Court – which at that time was referred to as the Warren court – the following question:

“Whether a police officer and his or her supervisor should be held liable for making an arrest based upon a statute that was later found to be applied unconstitutionally?”

The Supreme Court’s response was that law enforcement officers:

  • should not be placed in a position where they face allegations of insubordination for not making an arrest, or
  • civil liability for making an arrest for a crime that is later deemed to have been applied unconstitutionally

This was the first time any court had made a decision that carved out a particular sector of the government for protection from 1983 liability. 

Harlow vFitzgerald 

457 U.S. 800 (1982) 

After the judicial amendment of 1983, The United States Supreme Court (almost 15 years after Pearson v. Ray) decided to expand qualified immunity protections in Harlow v Fitzgerald.  

The Court in Harlow removed the good faith requirement previously stated by the Supreme Court in Pierson an expanded qualified immunity to even cover malicious acts by government officials unless the victim could show that there was a clearly established legal right. 

What Must a Defendant Prove? 

Basically, iHarlow, the United States Supreme Court said that in order for a citizen whose constitutional rights had been violated to prove their case (and be successful in imposing liability on a government employee) the plaintiff (who was the victim) would have to show that there was a previous case of similar conduct in context for which the Supreme Court had found specifically violated the constitution.

Without that similar conduct, there will be an injury with no means of solution.

In sum, the court in Harlow sent a message that even if a government official or law enforcement officer knowingly violates someone’s constitutional rights they would have been protected they will be protected from civil liability. 

“Clearly Established Legal Right” 

After Harlow the issue of establishing a clearly established legal right became a heavily litigated issue.   

This is because – while the qualified immunity had been expanded – lower courts were left to its own devices to define what a clearly established legal right would be.  

Over timesome federal circuit courts found that a legal right can be deemed to have been clearly established if the controlling Court for the jurisdiction had taken note of the legal right.  

Some federal courts found that while state court decisions could not be controlling that a robust consensus of cases within a particular circuit where the action is pending would satisfy the definition of an established legal Rep.  

While other courts in different circuits found that a robust consensus of cases outside of the jurisdiction where the 1983 was pending would satisfy the definition of a clearly established legal right. 

Plumhoff v. Rickard: Recently in Plumhoff v. Rickard, United States Supreme Court Justice Alito explains that a robust consensus of cases may not overcome qualified immunity.  

Kisela v. Hughes: Then, in 2018when deciding Kisela v. Hughes, 138 S.Ct. 1148 (2018) following the Plumhoff decision The United States Supreme Court stated that they have repeatedly told courts not to define clearly established law at a high level of generality. 

At present, based upon recent decisions from the United States Supreme Court related to qualified immunity, the two existing problems would be:

  1. that a person whose constitutional rights were violated would also have to prove that the violation is supported by clearly established law; and
  2. to ensure the most certain context for success, the person must rely on United States Supreme Court decisions to pursue state officials.

“Qualified Immunity” Today

In light of recent events in the United States and abroad related to police accountability, excessive use of force, false arrest, and similar allegations, the United States Congress have proposed the bill which is currently before the house that would once and for all be congresses address to the issue of qualified immunity and that address is intended to express that qualified immunity was never intended by Congress fury 

Related Supreme Court Cases Currently Pending 

There are also cases pending before the United States Supreme Court where the court is being asked to once again consider qualified immunity. 

One justice of the United States Supreme Court commented that the number of amicus briefs that they have received related to this issue is the most diverse group of briefs that they have ever received related to any issue all in support of doing away with qualified immunity.  

10-year-old Boy Accidentally Shot 

One particular case currently pending before the United States Supreme Court seeking certiorari is a case of a 10-year-old boy who was told by police to lay on the ground while the police attempted to restrain a house dog.

In the officer’s attempt to restrain the house dog, one officer shot at the dog and the shot missed and hit the 10-year-old boy. 

The lower court dismissed the 1983 claim, saying that, while the child’s constitutional rights were violated there is no clearly established law that an officer firing a shot at a dog that misses and hits a complainant who is laying where the officer told him to go would violate the constitution. 

When considering qualified immunity and the people that it would apply to – in the context of the United States Supreme Court’s intent when judicially enacting qualified immunity – it is also important to take into account while the Supreme Court has expressed an intent to protect police officers another government employees from civil liability and the financial burdens of it most government employees or actually indemnified from civil liability by their particular agency.  

For example, take “qualified immunity” in New York State. 

Qualified Immunity in New York 

Police officers in New York City are covered by New York State Public Officers Law Section 18which details the breadth and depth of indemnity that a government agency can be offered In New York.   

Based upon a contractual agreement – from a practical standpoint – when a police officer is sued in New York they are represented by a government attorney and any settlements that judgments are paid out by the government through taxpayers’ funds. 

So, while government employees and police officers specifically are not indemnified from a finding of liability the financial burden of litigating a lawsuit related to a claim that a police officer violated a citizen’s constitutional right is financed at the extent at the expense of taxpayers as well as any settlement being dispersed from taxpayer dollars. 

In light of the fact that the purpose of Section 1983 is to:

  • protect citizens;
  • offer a vehicle to redress violations of their constitutional rights by government employees; and
  • coupled with the fact that the officers will be represented by counsel paid for by taxpayers;
  • as well as have settlements covered by taxpayers…

… it is the position of many legal professionals that the theory of qualified immunity is unwarranted and does nothing more than present an obstacle to accountability for government employee misconduct committed against the citizens of the states and localities. 

“Where do we go from here?” 

Like with many legal issues it appears that the pendulum has begun to swing back to the original intent of 1983 we recently United States Supreme Court Justice Sonya Soda Meyer expressed concerns about the theory of qualified immunity and the obstacles it creates for citizens who seek the means to redress violations of their constitutional rights.

From the other side of the Court, Justice Clarence Thomas has also recently expressed concerns about the theory of qualified immunity for different reasons just as Thomas is of the opinion the qualified immunity is not rooted in the United States constitution the intent of the Ku Klux Klan at or the provisions of 1983. 

So for many reasons, both conservative and more moderate members of the United States Supreme Court (for different reasons) have expressed concern about the existence of the judicially created defense of qualified immunity. 

There is a chance that the Supreme Court may soon decide to reconsider qualified immunity and there is a bill in Congress right now to abolish qualified immunity called the “Ending Qualified Immunity Act.”

The Ending Qualified Immunity Act

In response to heinous and unjust acts of police misconduct, including the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Representatives Ayanna Pressley, and Justin Amash have introduced legislation to end the doctrine of qualified immunity.

The legislation codifies that the qualified immunity doctrine is not grounds for defense for officers that violate the law. Specifically, this bill would—

    • Amend Section 1983 to explicitly state that the qualified immunity doctrine invented by the Supreme Court does NOT provide police officers that brutalize or otherwise violate civil rights with defense or immunity from civil liability for their actions.
    • Clarify Congress’ original intent for Section 1983 and note the history and necessity of this protection.


If you have been charged with a federal or state crime, are currently under investigation, or would like to know more about qualified immunity, call us now for a free and completely confidential attorney phone consultation at (212) 736-3900.

This article was co-written by Robert Pagan and Emel McDowell of The Blanch Law Firm.

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