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Supreme Court refuses cases to limit police protections from civil lawsuits

The Supreme Court of the United States in Washington, D.C., on September 25, 2018. Supreme Court will hear case involving convicted DC area sniper.(Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)
June 15, 2020

The U.S. Supreme Court decided on Monday that it will not consider a case that challenges the legal threshold by which police officers can be sued in civil courts.

“#SCOTUS also turns down group of cases involving doctrine of qualified immunity, which shields officials from liability for constitutional violations that do not violate clearly established law,” tweeted SCOTUSblog, a private blog that tracks Supreme Court activities.

The Supreme Court’s decision means that the issue of qualified immunity for law enforcement officers will not be on the docket when the court begins its next term starting in October.

According to Cornell Law, the doctrine of “Qualified Immunity” holds that government officials cannot be held personally liable in civil cases unless they have violated a “clearly established” statutory or constitutional right. The standard for determining whether a case can proceed against a government official’s actions is whether a “reasonable official” would believe that the actions would have violated a plaintiff’s rights.

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In effect, the doctrine shields government officials, including law enforcement officers, from facing lawsuits brought on in the process of conducting their regular duties.

Proponents of the doctrine view it as allowing government officials to carry out their duties without concern for legal harassments and distractions. Opponents of the doctrine worry that it sets a high standard barring officials from being held accountable for actions that violated a plaintiff’s rights.

According to USA Today, University of Chicago Law School professor and Qualified Immunity scholar William Baude found that in 30 cases spanning more than 30 years, the Supreme Court had only found on two occasions that government officials had clearly violated established law, allowing complaints to proceed beyond the protection of qualified immunity.

The issue of Qualified Immunity has seen a resurgence in public interest following the recent death of a black man, George Floyd, while in Minneapolis police custody. Video emerged of officer Derek Chauvin holding his knee to the back of Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes during Floyd’s arrest.

Floyd’s death has sparked widespread public backlash over police tactics and questions as to whether internal disciplinary measures are doing enough to route out bad police officers. Personnel records indicate Chauvin received more than 15 conduct complaints in his 19-year career with the Minneapolis Police Department. Most complaints were closed without disciplinary action.