What is qualified immunity?
As explained by the Supreme Court of the United States, the “doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”
In other words, qualified immunity provides that a government official, such as a politician or a police officer, is likely exempt from being held responsible in a lawsuit for money damages.
The immunity is not absolute, but qualified – – in some cases the official could be liable. However, the official will only be liable if he violates a person’s rights and knows, or reasonably should have known that he was violating that person’s rights. If the official reasonably believes that his conduct is appropriate he is exempt from liability. An official who violates a person’s rights because of a reasonable mistake of fact or law, cannot be held liable in a civil lawsuit.
For example, let’s say a uniformed officer searches someone’s home without a warrant because the owner of the home consented to an undercover officer entering the home. The uniformed officer had been told by his superiors, based on existing trial court case law, that this search would be Constitutional.
Later, an appellate court rules that this type of search is unconstitutional.
The owner of the home almost certainly could not successfully sue the uniformed officer for violating his rights. The officer could invoke qualified immunity as a defense because the law at the time that he conducted the search did not clearly establish that his search was unconstitutional.
Why Provide Officials with Qualified Immunity?
There are two competing interests at issue. On the one hand, society wants to empower people with the ability to hold officials accountable for civil rights violations. Victims who have had their rights trampled by the government deserve compensation for their injuries. On the other hand, officials may not be able to effectively do their jobs if they are subject to time-consuming and harassing investigations and lawsuits. Officials may be overburdened by lawsuits and investigations.
Qualified immunity is meant to strike a balance by exempting officials from civil liability if they act responsibly, even if they may at times make mistakes.
The doctrine is controversial because of a perception that officials, especially police officers, have been able to rely on qualified immunity even in extreme cases. Critics of qualified immunity believe police officers have too easilly been excused from liability by claiming that any harm they caused, no matter how serious, was the result of a good-faith mistake.
Examples of Qualified Immunity Cases
Pearson v. Callahan (2009)
The Supreme Court held that officers who conducted a warrantless search based on consent from an informant were entitled to qualified immunity
Corbitt v. Vickers (2019)
The Eleventh Circuit held that a police officer who mistakenly shot a child while attempting to shoot a dog was protected by qualified immunity. There was no clearly established law that would make it clear to a reasonable officer that firing at the dog and accidentally shooting the child would violate the Fourth Amendment.
Stamps v. Town of Framingham (2016)
The First Circuit held that a police officer who shot and killed a resident was not entitled to qualified immunity. Clearly established Fourth Amendment law was sufficiently clear that any reasonable officer would have known that pointing a loaded assault rifle at the head of a non-resistant person, with the safety off, violated the resident’s Constitutional rights.