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Qualified Immunity

Many government officials enjoy “qualified immunity,” a legal doctrine which prevents civil lawsuits against them as individuals, unless certain conditions are met. A government official has qualified immunity if he or she performs “discretionary functions” and if a reasonable person in their position would know their actions did not violate clearly established legal principles.

Discretionary Functions

Not all actions by government officials are carried out at that official’s discretion. A city maintenance worker may work according to directives and protocols decided by others. A police officer, however, may be allowed to use his or her judgment in deciding whether to make a traffic stop, question an individual, or arrest someone. If an official has the freedom to decide whether something should be done, and how best to achieve it, they are likely carrying out discretionary functions.

Clearly Established Legal Principles

A legal principle is “clearly established” when there are clear court precedents establishing the principle that have been widely publicized. A ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court likely meets this requirement. Rulings by lower courts – and even statutes that are passed by legislatures – do not necessarily meet this requirement. As a result, a plaintiff must meet a high standard to overcome the presumption of qualified immunity for the official they are trying to sue. The principle must be so clear that any reasonable person in the official’s position would understand when they are crossing a line. If there is some ambiguity as to how the principle applies to the official’s actions, or if the principle is not widely known, the official may still be protected by qualified immunity. Generally speaking, a legal principle must rise to the level of a constitutional right in order to overcome the presumption of qualified immunity.

Example 1: The U.S. Supreme Court rules that it violates the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution for a police officer to inject a syringe into a citizen during a traffic stop for the purpose of testing that citizen’s blood alcohol content, unless the citizen has authorized the test in writing. The ruling is widely publicized and discussed in the news media, and every local police department sends a memorandum to its officers discussing the ruling. Officer Testum pulls over a driver on the highway. He directs the driver out of the car, briefly handcuffs him, and injects a syringe into his arm without the driver’s authorization. Later, Officer Testum pulls over a second driver and directs her out of the car. This time, he cuts a single hair from her head to test for drugs. Although Officer Testum committed two invasive actions against citizens, there is only a “clearly established” legal principle related to the blood test. The principle does not clearly apply to the hair test. In the first case, any reasonable police officer would know that the officer’s action violates a clear Supreme Court precedent, so he would not be protected by qualified immunity. In the second case, the Plaintiff can certainly argue that the principle is broad enough to also prohibit unauthorized removal of hair. In turn, the officer will argue that the ruling did not clearly address this scenario, and he was entitled to use his discretion without fear of a civil lawsuit against him personally. Because Courts have largely upheld qualified immunity in favor of police departments, the Plaintiff’s argument may not be successful.

Example 2: California passes a law prohibiting the use of chokeholds by police officers and mandating immediate training for all officers to make this prohibition extremely clear. Officer Chokum questions a suspect who is seen leaving the site of a home burglary. The suspect admits that he was in the home but says he did not take anything. Officer Chokum places the suspect in a chokehold to subdue him before handcuffing him and placing him in the back of the police car. The officer clearly broke California law, but he can still claim qualified immunity because courts have not established the same prohibition through their precedential rulings.

The principle of qualified immunity makes it difficult to hold abusive government officials accountable for their actions. It has led to some shocking results. The civil rights team at Spencer Young Law take your rights seriously, whether they are established through legislation or by court rulings. Even when an individual official can claim qualified immunity, you may be able to hold the government itself liable for their misconduct. At Spencer Young Law, we explore every option for recourse when your rights are violated. Call today for your free consultation.

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