A Look at Qualified Immunity and Excessive Force

gavel and scales

With the renewed focus calling for social and racial justice after Black Lives Matters protests swept the nation this past summer, “qualified immunity” is being reexamined on its efficacy and it's role in preventing those who have their civil rights violated from obtaining redress. “Qualified immunity” was established in 1967, stating that state and local officials, including police officers, cannot be sued for civil rights violations unless the official has violated an individual’s “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights.” When officers violate certain rights, they can claim qualified immunity as a defense to any civil suits that may arise. This gives police officers (and prosecutors) less liability than normal citizens in their day-to-day interactions - or other professionals within their fields. Doctors and lawyers do not have qualified immunity. As a result, medical and legal malpractice suits are common and have required medical and legal professionals to take greater care in their decision-making. Of our many constitutional rights, the Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable search and seizures which implicitly includes the right to be protected from the use of unreasonable excessive force (a “seizure” of one’s body).

In Plumhoff v. Rickard, a man who was pulled over for a simple traffic infraction, a broken headlight, sped away and was chased by 5 police cruisers. Officers shot a total of 15 bullets into the vehicle, resulting in the vehicle crashing into a building, and both the driver and passenger of the vehicle died from a combination of gunshot wounds and the impact of the crash. All 5 of the officers involved in the incident were protected by qualified immunity. All 5 officers chased down a person who committed a simple traffic violation. All 5 officers decided that the best course of action was to give rise to a high-speed chase for a simple traffic violation, even though police vehicle pursuits are extremely dangerous and result in the death of hundreds of people per year, close to a million deaths in a 22 year period. Six years prior to this incident, in Scott v. Harris, a similar situation occurred where a man was in a 10-mile car chase on the freeway, going a maximum of 83 in a 55, resulted in an officer running the vehicle off the road. The 19-year-old driver was severely injured and was permanently left a quadriplegic. In both cases, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the officers were protected because they used a reasonable amount of force to end a dangerous high-speed car chase that was a danger to the public.

These are two of many instances where officers were not held accountable for their violent actions towards citizens that mirror those instances, we see all too often in the news, including cases where people are killed after selling loose cigarettes, having a toy gun, possessing a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill or simply acting outside of “social norms.”

Currently, Colorado is the only U.S. state to have rid itself of qualified immunity. Colorado also requires body cameras to be worn by police officers and imposes sanctions for any officers failing to activate or tampering with the body cameras in an effort to address law enforcement accountability. New York City followed that lead and passed an ordinance eliminating qualified immunity for officers who violate the Fourth Amendment, which includes excessive force claims. Some argue that this prevents people from seeking employment in these police departments and will raise insurance rates due to the increased liability. However, many social justice activists point out that this holds police officers accountable for their actions and offers justice to victims who have been harmed. In the Oregon Legislature, there are many bills that are receiving bipartisan support to increase accountability of law enforcement. However, with other states and major cities introducing legislation that would ban the use of qualified immunity as a defense, Oregon has yet to introduce legislation to rid our State of that immunity. We ask that you write your legislators here and demand that they end qualified immunity in our state.