Cooper & Elliott Blog

Qualified Immunity: A Necessary, But Not Absolute Privilege

Posted on Thu, Dec 8, 2016 @ 11:07 PM

Lately, it’s not surprising to turn on the news and see a case involving a police officer who’s been accused of using excessive force. The circumstances all vary but are nonetheless emotionally charged and often involve a legal doctrine known as qualified immunity. As Ohio civil litigation attorneys, we’d like to shed some light on qualified immunity and its legal implications.

The purpose of qualified immunity

Qualified immunity is a privilege often asserted by police officers, prison guards and other law enforcement or government agents to defend against a civil rights lawsuit. Its purpose is to strike a balance between the need for an official to act in difficult situations where split-seconds matter, and the need to protect the rights of those with whom the official comes into contact. The doctrine exists because we have to give government officials a certain amount of leeway to allow them reasonable discretion and personal safety in the performance of their jobs. No one would want to be a police officer if it meant the possibility of personal liability for every single action taken on the job.

However, qualified immunity is not a blanket protection for anything a person might choose to do in his or her official capacity.

Precedents determined by civil rights case rulings

Whether a defendant has qualified immunity depends on whether the defendant acted reasonably given the specific circumstances. When a defendant asserts qualified immunity, the defendant is saying, “Even if I violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights, I can’t be liable because it wasn’t clear beforehand that my conduct was a violation.”  The question is usually decided in terms of legal precedent—what courts have specifically held in similar cases.

Imagine a situation in which an officer strikes a handcuffed suspect with a baton. Whether the officer’s actions are considered excessive will depend on the specific circumstances. Was the suspect standing or sitting peacefully, posing no threat to the officer or anyone else? In those circumstances, courts have held that the baton strike is excessive and therefore a violation of the suspect’s constitutional rights. But what if the suspect was kicking or head-butting the officer? Many court cases have held that it’s permissible to strike a restrained suspect in that situation in order to protect the officer and others. The question can become even more nuanced—What if it takes only one or two baton strikes to subdue the suspect, but the officer continues with several more strikes after the suspect no longer poses a threat? Courts faced with that scenario may hold that the later strikes violated the suspect’s constitutional rights, even if the first one or two did not. Whether an officer is immune can come down to specifics like how many times the officer struck the suspect. So, if we were representing a suspect in a civil rights case against the officer, we would want to know if a court decision had ever addressed the specific details of our client’s case.

Validating qualified immunity assertions

When we go to bat for a client who believes an official has gone beyond what the law allows and violated their civil rights, we frequently end up facing an assertion of qualified immunity. Handling such cases requires a close examination of any precedents that seemingly immunize the official. Sometimes we can prove the law was badly applied in those cases, or that the facts in our case are different enough that immunity shouldn’t apply.

We look for evidence that would indicate that the official knew or should have known their actions were violating our client’s rights. In other words, we look at whether courts have issued decisions in cases involving the same circumstances as our client’s, or circumstances that are similar enough that the same rule would clearly apply. We also look at the official’s training and prior incidents, if any.  If we can prove that the official should have known better, we can defend against qualified immunity.

Misuse of qualified immunity

While qualified immunity protects officers and government officials and enables them to carry out their duty to protect the community, there are facets of the provision that some defense attorneys abuse.

For example, a defendant can ask the judge to dismiss the case on qualified immunity grounds before trial by filing a motion to dismiss or motion for summary judgment.  Most of the time, if a judge rejects a defendant’s motion to dismiss or motion for summary judgment, the defendant has to wait until after trial to appeal the judge’s legal decision. But qualified immunity is different. If a judge rejects a qualified immunity defense, the defendant can immediately appeal, and the appeal must be resolved before the case can continue to trial.  Trials can be held up for a year or more as a result.

Qualified immunity was created for a reasonable purpose, but it can be abused and provide cover for acts that are true violations of a citizen’s constitutional rights. If you have a civil rights case against a government official, it’s important that your attorneys be experienced in exposing faulty qualified immunity assertions.

The outcome of any client’s case will depend on the particular legal and factual circumstances of the case.

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