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What is 'qualified immunity'?

Stephanie Pagones

“Qualified immunity” shields government agents, frequently police officers, from lawsuits when they are accused of violating a person’s constitutional rights.

The “qualified immunity” doctrine was first enunciated by the Supreme Court in 1967 and expanded greatly by the court in the 1980s.

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As explained in the Supreme Court’s 2009 decision Pearson et al. v. Callahan, “Qualified immunity balances two important interests—the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.”

According to Cornell Law School's Legal Information Institute, it "protects a government official from lawsuits alleging that the official violated a plaintiff's rights, only allowing suits where officials violated a ‘clearly established’ statutory or constitutional right."

The doctrine can only be applied to cases against the individual, rather than those against government agencies, according to the institute.

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As the institute further states, it is “not immunity from having to pay money damages, but rather immunity from having to go through the costs of a trial at all. Accordingly, courts must resolve qualified immunity issues as early in a case as possible, preferably before discovery.”

It has seen renewed criticism in the wake of the police killing of Minnesota man George Floyd, 46. Floyd, a black man, died after he was pinned to the pavement on May 25 by a white Minneapolis police officer who put his knee on Floyd's neck for several minutes, even as Floyd said he could not breathe.

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Protests have been held in cities and towns around the world calling for an end to police brutality and systemic racism. And in Washington, lawmakers also heard testimony from civil rights and law enforcement leaders as Congress considers changes to police practices and accountability after Floyd’s death and the mass protests that followed.

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A piece of Democrats’ legislation would call for the loosening of “qualified immunity” to make it easier for those injured to seek damages in lawsuits.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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