July 23, 2022

Qualified Immunity

Qualified immunity shields law enforcement officers from being sued in their individual capacities...

Qualified Immunity

The doctrine of qualified immunity has shown to a be a contentious issue. Simply put, it is but one of many structural factors that make it difficult to hold law enforcement accountable for wrongdoing. While civil rights attorneys and legal scholars may have an intricate understanding of the nature of the defense, many whose professions exist outside the law have only a cursory understanding of the immense and unusual protections that this special defense provides for law enforcement. The doctrine is dangerous as it has the capacity to increase violence by law enforcement against citizens, as law enforcement undoubtedly understands that this defense was created for their benefit.  

When excessively violent or otherwise unlawful actions are instigated by law enforcement, the predominant recourse is under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983. The classic example of a 1983 claim is an individual fleeing from law enforcement and being shot in the back. And while some legal defenses come natural to the psyche – self-defense, mistake of fact, and insanity, among others – qualified immunity is a special defense, uniquely created by the U.S. Supreme Court to protect judges from their own questionable rulings and subsequently extended to protect law enforcement and prison officials from their questionable actions.  

Qualified immunity shields law enforcement officers from being sued in their individual capacities. Practically, this means that law enforcement officers are absolved from being held personally liable; that is, no personal assets of the officer are legally at-risk due to his or her misconduct unless certain showings can be made. The officer’s conduct is therefore primarily limited according to his or her fear of criminal penalties, which as we know, are imposed according to a legal standard more difficult to meet – “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  

Qualified immunity, however, is not an absolute defense. Suits can be filed against law enforcement when:

  1. The conduct of the law enforcement officer or government official violates federal rights that have been clearly established
  2. If a reasonable officer or government official should have known that his conduct violated clearly established federal rights

A “violation of clearly established rights" means that another court must have previously ruled that certain actions taken by law enforcement were unlawful. Naturally, the facts in both instances have to be substantially similar, which raises questions of fairness to litigants who have brought a unique case forward. The second prong requires that a reasonably aware officer should know that courts have previously ruled that similar behavior is unlawful. If the victim cannot meet each of these prongs, qualified immunity will act as an affirmative defense and prevent recovery.  

Evaluating a case in which qualified immunity was presented as a defense may provide a more practical understanding of how the defense is used in practice. It may also display the implications that come with allowing law enforcement officers to interact with the public with special protections in place which, in effect, reduce accountability.

May v. City of Arlington, Texas, 398 F. Supp. 3d 68 (N.D. Tex. 2019)
Juan May, Patrick May, Thedrick Andres, and a number of other individuals were celebrating the birthday of Edwin Debbie on June 21, 2014. The party left Pappadeaux's Seafood Kitchen in Duncanville, Texas, went to a number of various locations, and when the night had concluded began the return trip to Pappadeaux.  
During the return trip a verbal altercation ensued between Patrick May, cousin of Juan May, and Thedrick Andres – an off-duty Dallas P.D. officer. On the return trip, Patrick May suggested that Andres dance on the stripper pole located within the bus. Andres naturally took offense to the suggestion, referring to Patrick May as “suspect” and other derogatory terms perhaps more appropriate for a 1992 hip hop album.1 Understandably, tensions flared.  
When the bus returned to the Pappadeaux parking lot Juan May began placing the party supplies into the trunk of his vehicle. Andres was standing a few feet away. Patrick May then approached Juan May and whispered some words to him. Juan May then approached Andres and said “We aren’t going to do all this tonight.” Andres responded to Juan May, which was followed by a punch from Juan May to Andres. Andres began to fight back, and Patrick May attempted to break up the fight between Andres and Juan May. Andres then punched Patrick May which caused him to begin fighting with Patrick May. The fight soon ended and both parties walked away from each other.  
Andres went to the car. Andre’s wife stated that a gun was located within his car and unlocked the car. At that point the scene became somewhat frenetic as members of the party knew that Andres had a weapon in the vehicle. Juan May then approached him to calm the situation, at which point there may have been some type of struggle between Juan May and Andres. Soon after, Andres retrieved his gun, raised from the vehicle, and fired a bullet into Juan May’s chest. Parties at the scene stated that Andres announced that he was a cop prior to firing the bullet, possibly multiple times before retrieving the firearm. Juan May was pronounced dead later in the evening.  
The Northern District Court of Texas in Dallas held that reasonable police officers could disagree as to the legality of an officer’s conduct in light of applicable law at the time and that Andres was therefore entitled to the qualified immunity defense.  

Cases abound in which similarly questionable rulings are made based on a question of whether a reasonable officer should have known that his actions were unlawful. Favorable rulings for law enforcement further empower law enforcement agencies to act unnecessarily aggressive toward citizens. Rather than to promote a safe society through increased accountability, the doctrine of qualified immunity often serves as a judicially-created blockade for those seeking justice. The net effect is a large segment of the population that has less confidence in the capacity of law enforcement to react thoughtfully and proportionately to dangers presented, and less trust in the criminal justice system as a whole.