Supreme Court declines to hear cases of qualified immunity for U.S. police officers

The U.S. Supreme Court is for now declining to get involved in an ongoing debate by citizens and in Congress over policing, rejecting cases Monday involving the defence of qualified immunity, which can shield police officers accused of using excessive force from legal liability.

With protests over racism and police brutality continuing nationwide, the justices turned away more than half a dozen cases involving the legal doctrine, which the high court created more than 50 years ago largely to protect government employees from frivolous lawsuits.

The justices as is customary didn’t comment in turning away the closely watched appeals in cases that had been pending before the court for months, including a dispute over whether officers in Tennessee can be sued for using a dog on a man who says he had surrendered.

Justice Clarence Thomas, in a six-page dissent, said the court should have heard that case.

“I have previously expressed my doubts about our qualified immunity jurisprudence,” he wrote, explaining he believes the court’s “qualified immunity doctrine appears to stray from the statutory text.”

As a result of qualified immunity, even when a court finds that an official or officer has violated someone’s constitutional rights, they can still be protected from civil lawsuits seeking money. The Supreme Court has said that qualified immunity protects officials as long as their actions don’t violate clearly established law or constitutional rights which they should have known about.

The Supreme Court’s decision not to wade into the qualified immunity debate follows nationwide protests against racism and police brutality sparked by the death in Minnesota of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died May 25 while being restrained by a white officer.

Democrat-Republican split on immunity

In Congress, a bill introduced by House Democrats in the wake of Floyd’s death would make it easier for injured individuals to claim damages in civil suits against police offices. The White House, however, has said that provision is a nonstarter and not likely to be part of a Senate Republican bill that’s in the works.

The push for the court to reexamine qualified immunity has come both from the left and right, including Thomas, a conservative, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a liberal. In 2018, when the court said that an Arizona police officer who shot a knife-wielding woman four times was immune from being sued, Sotomayor said the decision “sends an alarming signal to law enforcement officers and the public.”

It used to be a given that increased spending on police budgets meant increased security — and that police budgets were untouchable. In less than three weeks, though, the Black Lives Matter movement has completely changed the conversation. Robyn Maynard, the author of Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present, makes the case for defunding. And John Sewell, co-ordinator of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition and a former mayor of Toronto, explains the forces, as powerful as ever, that are working against change. 32:52

Since then, the court has been asked to take a number of different cases involving qualified immunity. Some of the cases the court rejected Monday were filed at the court more than a year ago and many others had been pending for months, before Floyd’s death and the protests it prompted. The incidents themselves that sparked the lawsuits go back years and in some cases almost a decade.

Reuters published an investigation last month that revealed how qualified immunity, with the Supreme Court’s continual refinements, has made it easier for police officers to kill or injure civilians with impunity.

The investigation found that based on Supreme Court guidance, police often escape liability even when a lower court determines they used excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, so long as their specific conduct has not been “clearly established” in earlier cases as unconstitutional.

Published at Mon, 15 Jun 2020 17:06:54 +0000

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