Legislators on the State and Federal levels clearly have qualified immunity in their crosshairs. Click here for info on Federal legislation from National FOP President Pat Yoes. There are other things the reformers are gunning for, but weakening qualified immunity for law enforcement officers seems to be a major goal. It is important to recognize that the “reforms” to qualified immunity will still apply to all other public officers as it has always been. In other words, the Legislators proposing and voting on this legislation will still be able to benefit from from qualified immunity, as will all other public officers exercising the discretionary functions of their office.
I would like to start by saying that Legislators are gunning for the wrong thing. Qualified immunity only relates to civil lawsuits alleging Constitutional violations. Qualified immunity does not apply to criminal matters.
In Louisiana, lawmakers have proposed that qualified immunity would not be available to law enforcement officers for any wrongful death or injury resulting from a use of force. In those cases, the trier of fact would have to decide if the use of force leading to the lawsuit was unreasonable. If the judge decides it is unreasonable, then the lawsuit would be allowed to continue.
Contrast that with the current way qualified immunity is applied. There is a two-prong test to determine if a public officer is entitled to qualified immunity: 1) Did the public officer’s actions actually constitute a violation of the plaintiff’s Constitutional rights? 2) Was the public officer on notice that his actions constituted a violation of someone’s Constitutional rights? If the answer to both of those questions is yes, then qualified immunity does not apply. If the answer to either of those questions is no, then the lawsuit will be dismissed as to that public officer.
From the standpoint of law enforcement officers, the current application of qualified immunity serves to protect them from civil lawsuits in a profession that is dangerous and often leads to tense, rapidly evolving circumstances where the lives of law enforcement officers and civilians are in danger. A Tulane University Police Officer and Deputy Constable, Martinus Mitchum, was killed on February 26. 2021 when he intervened in a dispute over wearing a mask at a basketball game. Let that sink in. The shooter wanted to be allowed in the gym during a basketball game and was refused entry because he was not wearing a mask. When the interaction became contentious, Officer Mitchum stepped in to de-escalate the situation. In spite of Officer Mitchum’s efforts, the individual was so interested in not wearing a mask at the basketball game that he pulled a gun and shot and killed Officer Mitchum. It is a dangerous profession.
Other reform legislation includes bans in choke holds, bans on no-knock warrant service, and restrictions on the time of day warrants can be served. I don’t object to those efforts except to say that when someone’s life is in legitimate peril, all options should be on the table. Actually, this legislative efforts are much more reasonable than attacks on qualified immunity.
With regard to qualified immunity, I will point out that I am unaware of any insurance product that would provide liability insurance for law enforcement officers. Elimination of qualified immunity, even under restricted circumstances, would expose law enforcement officers to the same type of civil exposure that doctors are exposed to. As we all know, one reason we pay so much to see the doctor is because the doctor has to pay expensive insurance premiums. The problem is that I am unaware of any insurance product available to law enforcement officers and law enforcement salaries have historically been low.
Without qualified immunity, I think I would have to question the sanity of anyone choosing to work in law enforcement – at least a law enforcement agency without qualified immunity. In his monthly podcast, noted public safety attorney Will Aitchison said that taking a law enforcement job without qualified immunity should be the equivalent of failing the psych exam.
Legislators should be focusing on banning chokeholds. NOPD has banned chokeholds for years and it has had a good result. Changing qualified immunity will have unforeseen consequences that will damage law enforcement forever. Law enforcement officers are not the 1%. Law enforcement officers are blue collar workers who live next door to you. Their kids go to school with your kids. They are much more likely to be able to relate with you than with the 1%. In addition, law enforcement officers are not the ones setting policy within police departments. Those policies are being set and implemented by elected officials and people appointed by those elected officials. When the Dept. of Justice sought to implement a consent decree in New Orleans, the consent decree did not contain mandates for each individual police officer. The consent decree contains mandates for the administration. That is because the administration is responsible for how law enforcement officers perform their jobs.
I am not sure changing qualified immunity for law enforcement officers only will be Constitutional. We are entitled to equal treatment under the law. One way or another, legislators need to keep their eye on the ball and prop up law enforcement so that the profession can best serve their respective communities. Legislators should NOT be taking actions that will forever damage law enforcement as a profession.
All law enforcement officers and those individuals supporting law enforcement should contact their elected officials and let them know that you do not support elimination of qualified immunity for law enforcement officers in any way. Emails, letters, and/or phone calls can be used to serve that purpose. Don’t be shy. This is extremely important.