Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that creates space for public officials to carry out their duties without always having to worry about being sued for their decisions. The goal of qualified immunity is to balance holding a public official accountable for reckless or negligent decisions involving violations of constitutional rights while shielding their reasonable everyday decisions from liability.
Without qualified immunity, the thinking goes, most people would shy away from public service for fear of being held personally liable following some incident. The concern is seeing lawsuits become a tool for harassment of public officials as they complete the duties of their offices.
Whether qualified immunity applies in a case and how it impacts your ability to obtain compensation for your injuries requires a legal analysis by an experienced attorney. Here’s what you need to know about qualified immunity and why it’s an issue.
What Is Qualified Immunity?
Qualified immunity emerged from court decisions dating back to the 1870s. The doctrine holds that government officials who make good-faith decisions while carrying out their official duties shouldn’t face the time and expense of a liability lawsuit.
The qualified part of qualified immunity draws a line that allows lawsuits to proceed when a plaintiff shows that the official violated a “clearly established” legal or constitutional right that a “reasonable person would have known.” The evaluation requires a judge to decide whether the officer acted as a hypothetical “reasonable person” would have when facing the same circumstances.
Qualified immunity doesn’t mean that officials can never be sued. The decision on whether to grant qualified immunity falls to a judge in the earliest stages of a case. The case is dismissed if the judge determines that qualified immunity applies. In effect, qualified immunity serves as a defense against a lawsuit.
The doctrine of qualified immunity only extends to individuals serving officially. Government agencies sued for damages for the actions of their leaders cannot claim qualified immunity. In recent years, qualified immunity has been mainly discussed in the context of the activities of police officers. However, many other members of government agencies can cite qualified immunity as a defense. The doctrine has even been used to protect engineers in roadway design cases stemming from serious accidents.
Origins of Qualified Immunity
The court decisions that established qualified immunity go back to the late 1960s. In the 1967 case of Pierson v. Ray, Supreme Court justices granted immunity to a police officer in a claim for false arrest. The follow-up case of Harlow v. Fitzgerald in 1982 built on that finding in a decision that gave public officials immunity unless they knew or should have known their actions ran the risk of violating a person’s constitutional rights.
Subsequent cases in 1986, 1987, 2001, 2009, and 2022 further interpreted qualified immunity as a factor in lawsuits against public officials. The case of Safford Unified School Dist. #1 v. Redding, for example, included an interpretation that some qualified immunity may exist even if rights were violated.
Why Does Qualified Immunity Matter?
Views on qualified immunity vary dramatically depending on perspectives and circumstances. From a public policy perspective, qualified immunity allows public officials to make reasonable mistakes in their duties. If officials have to worry about endless lawsuits, they’ll be overly cautious and not give the public their best efforts.
Under these circumstances, finding people willing to take public service jobs might even be challenging. This is especially true for law enforcement officers, who often must react to changing circumstances quickly with little time to think. The general public ends up bearing the costs in terms of repeated court judgments for damages.
Opponents argue that qualified immunity has gone too far in its interpretation and application, and, as a result, officials need to be appropriately held accountable for their actions. Qualified immunity represents a shield from liability for damages, so people who have suffered severe injuries are denied the opportunity to obtain proper compensation for behavior that some may view as egregious. Opponents also argue that concerns over excessive lawsuits are overblown and that the court system has enough protections to keep processes from being abused.
What’s Next for Qualified Immunity?
The concept of qualified immunity has been a pressing matter of public interest since the death of George Floyd in 2020 while in Minneapolis police custody. The incident was captured on video via a bystander, resulting in weeks of racially charged protests.
Although the officers in that case were criminally charged and later convicted, the incident and others around the country sparked calls for reform and even reversing qualified immunity altogether. Because the doctrine was established through court decisions, an act of a state legislature could nullify its use and force public officials to defend themselves fully against various lawsuits claiming rights violations. Some states have already curtailed its use.
In Nevada, a recent state Supreme Court decision has opened local and municipal officials up to lawsuits to which they previously may have been immune. In 2022, the court’s justices rejected qualified immunity as a defense in which a woman sought to visit her boyfriend in prison but was subject to a strip search.
“Constitutional rights must remain enforceable in the absence of some action by the legislature,” the court ruled, “or risk that constitutional rights become all but a mere hope.” Qualified immunity, however, remains in force in cases involving federal officials. The decision applies only in state matters.
Quality Representation from De Castroverde Law Group
The attorneys at De Castroverde Law Group focus on your needs through aggressive, dependable, and affordable legal representation from the beginning to the end of your case. Our team comprises attorneys with unique backgrounds, including former prosecutors, who can help explain the ins and outs of your case, the evidence you need for your defense, and the relevant laws. All of those elements, and proper timing, are essential in resolving an issue favorably. Our team also includes attorneys with extensive experience in personal injury law and can represent your interests in cases involving government misconduct. We’ll fight for your right to just compensation and fair treatment. Let us help. Call us or contact us online today.