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What Is Qualified Immunity?

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Apr 01, 2024

If someone violates your rights under the law or otherwise causes loss, you can sue them in court. However, when the perpetrator is a police officer or other law enforcement official acting in their duties, the government protects them from lawsuits unless a constitutional right has been violated. 

This concept is known as "qualified immunity." It is typically the first defense raised in cases involving alleged police misconduct. 

What Is Qualified Immunity?
Qualified immunity protects government officials from lawsuits in most cases.

That being said, the operable term is qualified immunity, meaning the officer in question does not have absolute immunity from liability. If you or your attorney can show that law enforcement violated an established constitutional right, qualified immunity does not apply. 

Simply put, qualified immunity is a form of legal immunity that protects government officials from lawsuits alleging they violated a plaintiff's rights. Suits are only allowed when officials violate a “clearly established” statutory or constitutional right.

Qualified immunity balances the need to hold public officials accountable when exercising power irresponsibly and to shield them from harassment, distraction, and liability in performing their reasonable duties. 

To determine whether a right was clearly established, courts will consider whether a hypothetical reasonable government official would have known that the defendant's conduct violated the plaintiff's rights. Courts conducting this review apply the law in force at the time of the alleged violation, not the law in effect when the court considers the case.

Qualified immunity is not immunity from having to pay monetary damages but rather from going through the costs of a trial. Thus, courts must resolve qualified immunity issues early in the case process, preferably before discovery.

What is the Historical Context of Qualified Immunity?

Qualified immunity is a judicially created doctrine that shields government officials from being held personally liable for constitutional violations—such as violating a person's civil rights—unless the official violated a clearly established statutory or constitutional right that a reasonable person would have known. 

Originating from the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1871 (embodied in Title 42 U.S.C. 1983), this doctrine has evolved through numerous court decisions over the decades.

The intent behind qualified immunity was to balance two critical interests: holding public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and shielding officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.

What is the Legal Application for Qualified Immunity?

In practice, qualified immunity means that a law enforcement officer can only be held personally liable for damages in a civil lawsuit if they violated a “clearly established” right at the time of the incident. The critical legal standards for determining whether qualified immunity applies include two questions

  1. Did the officer's conduct violate a constitutional right?
  2. Was the right clearly established at the time of the alleged misconduct?

For a right to be “clearly established,” there must be sufficient precedent within the jurisdiction—meaning that earlier court decisions should have found similar conduct under similar circumstances to be a constitutional violation. 

Qualified Immunity

This requirement often presents a substantial hurdle for plaintiffs as it necessitates a high level of specificity. However, if you can demonstrate that both criteria apply, the officer cannot claim qualified immunity and may be held personally liable for violating your rights.

Qualified immunity only applies to suits against government officials as individuals, not suits against the government for damages caused by their actions. Although qualified immunity frequently appears in police officer cases, it also applies to most other executive branch officials. 

While judges, prosecutors, legislators, and other government officials do not receive qualified immunity, most are protected by other immunity doctrines.

The United States Supreme Court upheld absolute immunity only in certain functions for certain government officials, including the President and similar officials. This doctrine shields those individuals from criminal prosecution and lawsuits as long as their actions are within the scope of their jobs.

Applying Qualified Immunity in California

For victims of alleged police misconduct in California, this doctrine can complicate their pursuit of justice. It not only imposes a rigorous standard for proving a violation of clearly established law but also potentially limits the avenues available for redress. 

However, it is crucial to understand that qualified immunity applies only to civil cases seeking monetary damages against government officials in their individual capacities. 

It does not protect officials from all forms of accountability, nor does it apply to criminal prosecutions or lawsuits against governmental entities for systemic issues. In the wake of increased calls for police reform, especially in cases of police brutality, California has taken steps to address public concerns over police accountability.

Legislation and court rulings in recent years have sought to clarify and, in some instances, narrow the scope of qualified immunity, aiming to ensure victims of police misconduct have a pathway to justice. 

Currently, California law specifically restricts law enforcement and other government employees from claiming qualified immunity in the following situations:

  • Charges of false arrest or imprisonment: Penal Code 847 PC indicates that when police officers commit false arrest or imprisonment of a civilian, qualified immunity does not apply because law enforcement had no probable cause.
  • Violations of the Bane Act: Under California's Tom Bane Civil Rights Act, citizens are legally permitted to sue government officials who violate their constitutional rights through “threat, intimidation, or coercion,” government employees cannot claim qualified immunity as a defense.

Other constitutional rights violations that can disqualify law enforcement from claiming qualified immunity include, but are not limited to:

  • Illegal search and seizure (violate the right of privacy and no seizure without probable cause).
  • Police brutality/excessive force (violates the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment).
  • Other crimes committed against citizens (e.g., sexual assault, harassment, assault).

Even as California law continues to clarify the boundaries of acceptable versus unacceptable police conduct, overcoming a qualified immunity defense still requires sophisticated knowledge and experience. 

Therefore, individuals seeking justice in cases where qualified immunity is involved should consult an experienced California criminal defense attorney. 

A lawyer with a deep understanding of the nuanced precedents governing qualified immunity can offer invaluable assistance in articulating constitutional rights violations and effectively navigating the judicial process to hold officials accountable for their actions. Contact us for more information. Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles, CA.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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