The tragic death of George Floyd will hopefully bring reforms that help ease racial tensions and move us toward greater equality in society. One legal doctrine that allows police officers to avoid liability for acts of brutality and excessive force is the doctrine of qualified immunity that should be revisited in light of recent events.
What is the doctrine of Qualified Immunity?
Qualified Immunity is a legal doctrine established in 1982 with the Supreme Court case Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982), to balance constitutional rights and reasonable officer actions by allowing officers to rely on the present state of law at the time of their actions. This means the officer would not be found in violation of someone’s constitutional rights for following a law that was legal at the time and later ruled unconstitutional. Over time, this has developed in a way that protects an officer’s action above others’ constitutional rights so long as the specific type of violation in question is not “clearly established” as unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has not defined exactly what “clearly established” means, although it has provided some limited guidance that it is more than a generic statement in the Bill of Rights but does not have to be a precedent with the exact same factual situation.