In 2010, officer Terence Garrison unleashed his dog on a homeless man named Christopher Maney who Garrison thought was engaging in criminal activity. The dog left Maney with a 16-inch cut on his head and bites that led to a brachial artery blood clot.
In 2015, when police barged into Amy Corbritt's house looking for a suspect, officer Michael Vickers mistakenly shot Amy Corbritt's 10-year-old son.
In 2016, the 15th Circuit Drug Enforcement Unit in South Carolina gave a civilian informant $100 to buy marijuana from Julian Betton. When the informant entered the door, the team, equipped with military-grade weapons, broke down Julian's door and shot him an estimated nine times.
In all these cases, the police were let off. Why? Because government officials (police) attain something called, "qualified immunity," a doctrine which shields government officials from being held liable if they are sued.
This is how it works: A plaintiff can sue a police officer for violating their constitutional rights under a federal statute called Section 1983. However, in order to demonstrate that a plaintiff's constitutional right has been violated, the Supreme Court requires that the plaintiff point to a previous case that has similar facts to the current case. This requirement is in order to judge whether a "clearly established law" has been explicitly violated. If it hasn't, or there is a speck of ambiguity, the officer will almost always be acquitted.
Take the case of Scott vs. Sylvester. One night in Florida, Mr. Scott was playing video games with his girlfriend when officer Sylvester (who did not identify himself as law enforcement) banged on Mr. Scott's door. Alarmed, Mr. Scott picked up his hand gun and walked to the door. When he opened the door, Officer Sylvester saw the gun (which had not even been raised) and shot Mr. Scott six times. Officer Sylvester was granted qualified immunity because "...Mr. Scott had no clearly established right not to be murdered in his home by a cop," according to the U.S Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.
Examples like this solidify the argument that qualified immunity is absurd and wrong. It undermines the safety and justice for everyone by making it extremely hard for brutalized citizens to bring malicious police officers to justice.
Qualified immunity, a doctrine created in 1967, started out as a "modest exception for government officials who had acted in good faith and believed that their conduct was authorized by law," according to the Supreme Court. However, now, it has morphed into an obstruction of justice for the most egregious police officers.
Nonetheless, many argue that if qualified immunity ends, police officers will constantly worry about potential civil lawsuits as there is no legal doctrine to protect them. Therefore, they will not execute their job to the fullest in fear of being bankrupted by civil lawsuits. These people contend that this fear jeopardizes public safety, thus society needs qualified immunity.
Thing is, who cares if a police officer is scared to be held legally liable for breaking the law? In every other profession worldwide, an employee who runs into legal trouble is held liable. A doctor has no special pass if he panics and cuts three inches into the left of the brain instead of the right. An architect has no special pass if he builds the house with cheap materials and it collapses on a family. But, a police officer does have a special pass if he or she shoots an innocent person. Why are police officers exempt from the law?
Furthermore, if police fear the large legal fees they would need to pay in a civil lawsuit, firstly, toughen up; you break the law, you go to court, you pay your legal fees. But, under the doctrine of qualified immunity, police officers don't have to even pay a cent for legal fees. "The government pays 99.98% of the dollars that plaintiffs win in civil rights lawsuits against law enforcement," according to a study conducted by UCLA law professor, Joanna Schwartz.
While being a police officer is hard, qualified immunity should not be a cushion for government officials if they break the law.
Shouldn't everyone be equal under the law?