Is It Time to End Qualified Immunity?

Is It Time to End Qualified Immunity?

April 13, 20212 min read

Following the death of George Floyd and subsequent protests of police brutality, many began to wonder if this should be the end of qualified immunity, the legal protection that police officers and other government officials have from civil rights lawsuits unless the victim is able to show their constitutional rights had been violated by that official. At the time, there seemed to be a lot of momentum. 

"Based on the events of last summer, we were all poised for the United States Supreme Court to take action on qualified immunity," says Teri Ravenell, a law professor at Villanova who specializes in police accountability and municipal liability. "There were almost a dozen cases pending before them. With the egregious facts in these cases, it was ripe for them to act, but they refused to take cert." 

It was around the same time that the House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. And while there had been no action at the federal level, we began to see more states and local municipalities decide to move forward on their own. New Mexico and Colorado put laws in place to end qualified immunity, including for police officers, and New York City recently ended it as well. 

"Qualified immunity still exists at the federal level, but you now have local options that don't have the same obstacles because it has been eliminated in these state and local statutes," Prof. Ravenell says.

While there has been progress, Prof. Ravenell cautions to look beyond the present moment. 

"We say we want to end qualified immunity, but we're not thinking five steps ahead about what this actually does. We can say we want to make police more accountable, but how are we doing that? If it's that we want them to pay damages, if they take on more liability, municipalities will stop indemnifying and plaintiffs will go uncompensated. We have to think about how different rights and issues intersect with each other."

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