Those who have been wronged by the state or its officials have the right to hold government officials accountable through civil lawsuits. Yet through case law, courts have developed a doctrine known as qualified immunity. This doctrine is meant to balance the interests of the public to hold public officials accountable when they act improperly, while also shielding those officials from liability when they perform their duties reasonably.
What Is Qualified Immunity?
The doctrine of qualified immunity can protect public officials in lawsuits. In general, the doctrine means an official won’t be held liable for actions they took as part of their job. It applies to lawsuits against officials as individuals, not lawsuits against the government entity.
Whether immunity is applicable is decided at the outset of a case. For example, let’s say a plaintiff sues an official for something the public official did as part of their job. At the outset of the lawsuit, the official will raise the defense that they are entitled to immunity for their actions. When such a defense is raised, the court will decide whether the official has immunity before the lawsuit can proceed.
This defense will fail in cases where the judge finds the official violated a “clearly established” statutory or constitutional right. To make this determination, the court will consider if a reasonable official would have known that the government action or conduct at issue violated the plaintiff’s rights.
Qualified Immunity for Police
Since police are public officials, the doctrine of qualified immunity can protect law enforcement in civil lawsuits. Many times, lawsuits against police are raised in federal court under a claim of a civil rights violation (42 USC § 1983). Police officers are often sued for brutality, false imprisonment, and other related claims.
In general, the doctrine is meant to protect officers who act reasonably – even if they make a mistake. The doctrine is not meant to protect those who are willfully incompetent or who knowingly act improperly. In practice, many police officers are indemnified by their departments for monetary damages even if they are found liable.
However, note that the doctrine does not apply to prosecutions – it only applies to lawsuits. This means police can still face criminal charges for their actions, even if they can’t be held liable in a civil lawsuit.
Similar to qualified immunity, prosecutors can’t be held liable under the doctrine of prosecutorial immunity. Yet a prosecutor’s immunity goes even further – it is a kind of absolute immunity. No matter how egregious the behavior, a prosecutor will likely be shielded from liability. For example, a prosecutor cannot be held liable for knowingly introducing false evidence in court, withholding evidence of innocence, or knowingly prosecuting an innocent person.
Where prosecutors do engage in such conduct, there are other penalties. For instance, they may be held in contempt of court. They may also be subject to discipline by the state’s licensing authority or grievance committee, including censure, suspension, or disbarment.
- Whitney Novak, “Policing the Police: Qualified Immunity and Considerations for Congress,” Congressional Research Service (updated Feb. 21, 2023). Available at: https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/LSB/LSB10492 (last accessed Sept. 5, 2023).
- Joseph Fawbush and Ally Marshall, “Qualified Immunity: Both Sides of the Debate,” FindLaw.com (last reviewed Mar. 24, 2023). Available at: https://supreme.findlaw.com/supreme-court-insights/pros-vs-cons-of-qualified-immunity–both-sides-of-debate.html (last accessed Sept. 5, 2023).
Image: Image by rawpixel.com