Law enforcement to remain shielded from lawsuits for now as Supreme Court declines to review qualified immunity
As weeks of protest against police misconduct have raised questions about how best to increase accountability, the U.S. Supreme Court Monday chose not to review the qualified immunity doctrine, one of the foremost protections law enforcement officers have from punishment for misconduct.
The decision comes as a blow to these efforts but was not necessarily surprising, St. Edward's criminal justice professor Carsten Andresen said.
"The Supreme Court is very nervous about weighing in on anything that can have implications for how the police do their job," Andresen said. "I do think in the future, though, that this is going to be up for review. Lawyers are held responsible for the work they do, physicians are held responsible for the work they do … the legal community is going to start raising questions."
Qualified immunity defends government officials from being personally held liable for constitutional violations so long as they have not "violate[d] clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." As a result, police officers are often shielded from being sued, even in cases of excessive force, and a lack of cases overcoming this standard has made new lawsuits hard to win.
Questions about how to address the misconduct of police officers has been a topic of conversation around the country following the death of George Floyd at the hands of an officer in Minneapolis. Just over a month before Floyd's death, an Austin officer fatally shot Michael Ramos as he attempted to flee in his car. Ramos' case spurred a similar push in Austin.
Without qualified immunity for police officers, or at least a lower bar for overcoming it, Ramos' family might be able to sue the officer that shot him, Christopher Taylor, for damages, Andresen said.
Hesitancy by the Supreme Court to take up qualified immunity, or any case that could interfere with the ability of law enforcement to do its job, will likely continue for a while, Andresen said. For the court to take up any major changes to law enforcement, Andresen said it would likely take a very compelling case, and even then it could be 10 years from when the case begins before the court makes a decision.
However, the recent ubiquity of videos capturing law enforcement misconduct could potentially speed things up or affect how the court makes its decision, Andresen said.
"I'm a criminal justice researcher. I've always known that there are these problems, but knowing these problems (exist) and then seeing an actual video, it's so much worse in some cases than I might have imagined."
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