For decades, the legal construct of qualified immunity has allowed law enforcement officers and others to escape consequences for serious misconduct. It holds that officials cannot be held accountable unless their precise conduct has been found to be wrongful in the past, which keeps it from being found wrongful in the current instance. In practice, qualified immunity serves as a giant rubber stamp on even the most egregious transgressions. Above the Law: How “Qualified Immunity” Protects Violent Police by Ben Cohen (of Ben & Jerry’s fame), a new book slated for June 15 publication, highlights some examples, including these:
David Collie, then thirty-three, was walking to visit some friends who lived nearby on July 16, 2016, when he was accosted by Fort Worth, Texas, cops looking for two robbery suspects who did not match his description, except for being shirtless and Black. Collie was walking away from police when he took his hand out of his pockets, as directed, and raised his arm. Officer Hugo Barron fired a hollow-point bullet into Collie’s back, shattering his spine and leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Collie, who now lives in a nursing home, was unarmed. His lawsuit against Barron was dismissed due to qualified immunity. A federal appeals court said the case “exemplifies an individual’s being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Khari Illidge, a twenty-five-year-old Black man, was walking around a suburb of Columbus, Georgia, in 2013, naked and clearly having a mental health crisis. The cops arrived and told him to stop walking. When he did not, they tased him six times until he crumpled, then thirteen more times while he was on the ground. Then police hog-tied his wrists and ankles. A 385-pound officer knelt on his back. He was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead on arrival. An appeals court ruled that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because there was no precedent case against tasing, hog-tying, and then crushing someone to death.
Malaika Brooks, a thirty-three-year-old Black woman, was driving her young son to school in Seattle, Washington, one day in November 2004 when she was pulled over for speeding. The officer gave her a citation and asked her to sign it, as the law then required. When she declined, the officer called for backup and Brooks was ordered to step out of the car. When she said she was seven months’ pregnant, the cops tased her three times, dragged her to the street, and placed her in handcuffs. Brooks sued, alleging excessive force. A trial court judge rejected the officers’ claim of qualified immunity, noting that Brooks did not try to flee and posed no danger to anyone. But an appeals court overturned this ruling, saying the law regarding the use of Tasers was not yet clearly established.
A small group of children playing in Amy Corbitt’s front yard in Coffee County, Georgia, in July 2014 were ordered to the ground by police pursuing a suspect. One of the officers, deputy sheriff Matthew Vickers, tried to shoot the family dog, who was not threatening anyone, but instead shot Corbitt’s ten-year-old son in the back of his knee. A federal appeals court agreed the boy “suffered severe pain and mental trauma” and would require ongoing orthopedic care but blocked his ability to sue for damages on grounds of qualified immunity. “Corbitt failed to present us with any materially similar case” from other courts, it wrote, “that would have given Vickers fair warning that his particular conduct violated the Fourth Amendment.”
Two businessmen in Fresno, California, were served a search warrant in 2013 regarding the suspected illegal use of arcade games; no charges were filed. The cops reported that they had confiscated $50,000 in cash; the businessmen said this amount was $151,380 in cash and $125,000 in rare and valuable coins short of what was taken. When they learned that one of the cops had been arrested on federal charges of bribery in another case, the businessmen sued, alleging that they had been robbed. An appeals court ruled that the cops had qualified immunity, saying “there was no clearly established law holding that officers violate the [Constitution] when they steal property seized pursuant to a warrant.”
Onree Norris, a seventy-nine-year-old Black man in Henry County, Georgia, was watching television in his bedroom in February 2018 when suddenly a flash-bang grenade exploded in his living room. A group of cops in full SWAT team gear and assault rifles broke down his door with a battering ram and barreled toward him. Norris, who had recently had heart surgery, was thrown to the ground and placed in handcuffs. Turns out that the cops had the wrong house. Norris sued but his claims were rejected last year due to qualified immunity. He is pursuing an appeal.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 includes a provision to end the defense of qualified immunity for local law enforcement officers. The bill passed the House of Representatives in March with only one Republican vote, which was cast in error; President Joe Biden has vowed to keep pushing for Senate passage. A separate bill to dump qualified immunity has also been proposed by Democratic lawmakers.