Is It a Good Thing the Supreme Court Protected Police Qualified Immunity?

Is It a Good Thing the Supreme Court Protected Police Qualified Immunity?

( – Every day across America, police officers are asked to do incredibly difficult jobs. They deal with the worst kinds of situations imaginable, and at times, put their lives in harm’s way. Sometimes, law enforcement officers must make snap decisions to protect lives, property, and themselves. Yet, social justice activists and the Left argue these public servants don’t deserve any leeway if they make mistakes that harm someone or cost an alleged criminal their life. Instead, they believe, right or wrong, police are not held accountable because of the doctrine of qualified immunity.

On Monday, October 18, the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of police in two cases where plaintiffs alleged qualified immunity was inappropriate. Lower courts said the police officers in question abused their authority, used excessive force and, therefore, should not be immune to civil lawsuits. The higher courts didn’t agree based upon the facts.

High Court Rules for Police in Two Cases

Qualified immunity is not a law. It’s a doctrine that evolved from 1871 when Congress adopted 42 USC § 1983 in the wake of the Civil War. The law made it permissible for citizens to sue government employees and officials who violated their constitutional rights. Until the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, few people sued public servants. In 1967, the Supreme Court recognized qualified immunity as a defense for the first time, and in 1982, the nation’s highest court adopted the current test for the doctrine of qualified immunity. The court’s interpretation prevents the public from suing police for violating a citizen’s rights while they reasonably perform their duties unless the violation is “clearly established in law.” More on this point in a moment.

In Rivas-Villegas v. Cortesluna, the High Court reversed the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The plaintiff was allegedly drunk and threatened his girlfriend and her two daughters with a chainsaw. Responding officers ordered Ramon Cortesluna to drop the chainsaw and exit the house, but they noticed that the alleged offender also had a knife in his pocket. Accordingly, officers directed him to keep his hands in the air and away from the knife. Cortesluna didn’t comply with the order, and police shot him with two bean bag rounds. Now on the ground, Officer Rivas-Villegas placed his left knee on the suspect’s back, forced his hands behind his back as another officer handcuffed and disarmed the man.

Cortesluna sued Officer Rivas-Villegas for excessive use of force. He argued that the officer violated his rights when Rivas-Villegas put his knee on the suspect’s back. The court ruled in an unsigned statement that the plaintiff was volatile and qualified immunity, therefore, protected officers.

In City of Tahlequah, Oklahoma, et al. v. Austin P. Bond, the Supreme Court overturned the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. Emergency dispatch 9-1-1 received a call from the ex-wife of Dominic Rollice, who said her ex-husband was drunk and would not leave her property. If the police didn’t arrive, she said it could get ugly. During a conversation between police and Rollice, the suspect grabbed a hammer and behaved as if he would throw it as a weapon. Police Officers Josh Girdner and Brandon Vick shot and killed the suspect. The Supreme Court said the officers “did not violate any clearly established law.”

Justification for Qualified Immunity

The Supreme Court follows several justifications for qualified immunity. In 1976, the Supreme Court created the doctrine in Pierson v. Ray. It offers the following rationale:

  • The cost of ongoing litigation against governments with limited incomes is too expensive.
  • Energy to defend against lawsuits diverts energy from pressing public issues.
  • The threat of lawsuits would deter citizens from pursuing public service.
  • Lawsuits could harm lawful law enforcement conduct.

The Harlow decision stated that a police officer is often in a no-win scenario. It added that law enforcement officers could be in trouble with the law for dereliction of duty if one doesn’t enforce the law when there is probable cause or extorted through the court system.

So, is qualified immunity a bad thing? Ask yourself, if you’re in a dangerous job with limited choices and you must make a split-second decision, would a lack of qualified immunity impact your ability to protect the public or enforce the law?

Don Purdum, Independent Political Analyst

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