Recent unrest sparked by perceived police abuse has called for reform, police defunding, and demand for accountability. A Law Enforcement Officer, (LEO), should be aware of the doctrine of “qualified immunity” which protects government officials from liability for violating rights of citizens.

This doctrine provides that citizens cannot sue police officers for damages, unless police actions were so egregious that no reasonable judge would deem them lawful. Supreme Court Judges Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor do not agree about much, but both have questioned the landmark qualified immunity case of Pierson vs Ray (1967)[1].

Fifteen clergymen were arrested for attempting to integrate a segregated coffeeshop at a Mississippi Trailway Bus terminal and they sued the police officers that arrested them. The doctrine of qualified immunity reasons that police are protected from damages as long as they acted in “good faith”.

If LEOs faced large civil judgements every time they allegedly violated someone’s rights, fewer people would join the police department and those who did would be overly deterred from exercising their authority. If officers are at risk of losing their own homes if performing an illegal search, they may decide it is better not to search at all. Additionally, having to defend lawsuits will “distract” police from their duties. One federal appellate judge has recently bemoaned that the hodgepodge of contradictory court decisions leaves the “clearly established” standard neither clear, nor established. Some constitutional violations will go unaddressed, some officers may “shoot first and think later.”

In Pierson vs Ray, the U.S. Supreme Court first introduced the justification for “qualified immunity” for police officers being sued for civil rights’ violations under U.S.C Title 42 §1983 (1871). Police officers should not have to choose between individual liability versus protecting the rights of citizens.

Pierson states:

“Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom or usage, of any State or Territory subjects or causes to be subjected any citizen of the Unites States or any other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights privileges or immunity secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured …”

LEOs are not granted absolute and unqualified immunity from liability for lawsuits, but may be excused from liability “for acting under a statute that he/she reasonably believes to be valid, but was later held to be unconstitutional…”

This is similar to the principle that a police officer “…who arrests someone with probable cause is not liable for false arrest simply because the innocence of the suspect is later proved.” The doctrine protects officers from being personally liable for violating other people’s constitutional rights unless they violate “clearly established law.”

The doctrine does not grant police immunity from criminal prosecutions. However, the vast majority of the police brutality cases, officers never end up being charged with a crime and if sued are most generally acquitted or there is a financial settlement offered by the city.

[1] Pierson v Ray, 386 U.S. 547 (1967)