Qualified Immunity Is Burning a Hole in the Constitution

The Supreme Court created qualified immunity out of thin air in 1967, just six years after the Court first recognized that people could sue police officers and other government officials for violating their constitutional rights. In that first qualified immunity case, Pierson v. Ray, the Court held that the officers were entitled to a “good faith” immunity in civil rights cases. Chief Justice Earl Warren, writing for the majority, explained that this immunity from suit was necessary because, otherwise, officers could be held liable when they mistakenly believed the law authorized an arrest. As Chief Justice Warren explained, “A policeman’s lot is not so unhappy that he must choose between being charged with dereliction of duty if he does not arrest when he has probable cause and being mulcted in damages if he does.”

Although a “good faith” defense was the impetus for qualified immunity, today, officers are entitled to qualified immunity even if they act in bad faith, so long as there is no prior court decision with nearly identical facts. For more than five decades, the Supreme Court has repeatedly strengthened qualified immunity’s protections, describing each additional layer of defense in increasingly terrified tones as necessary to protect officers from the unyielding power of civil rights lawsuits.

The first — and arguably most seismic — shift to qualified immunity came in 1982 in a case called Harlow v. Fitzgerald. In Harlow, the Court concluded that officers’ entitlement to qualified immunity should not depend on whether they acted in good faith. In order to prove good faith, officers would have to be deposed — questioned under oath — about their state of mind at the time they violated the Constitution, and a case would go to a jury if an officer’s good faith was in dispute. Justice Powell, who wrote the majority opinion in Harlow, reasoned that requiring officers to participate in discovery and trial in an “insubstantial case” was a burden to the officer, who would need to spend time defending himself instead of doing his job. And the Court feared that this type of distraction would harm not only the officer but also “society as a whole” by discouraging “able citizens from acceptance of public office” and “dampen[ing] the ardor of all but the most resolute, or the most irresponsible [public officials], in the unflinching discharge of their duties.” So, to protect officers from having to participate in discovery and trial in “insubstantial cases,” the Court held in Harlow that an officer’s intentions do not matter to the qualified immunity analysis. Instead, officers are entitled to qualified immunity so long as they do not violate what the Court called “clearly established law.”

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Author: HP McLovincraft

Seeker of rabbit holes. Pessimist. Libertine. Contrarian. Your huckleberry. Possibly true tales of sanity-blasting horror also known as abject reality. Prepare yourself. Veteran of a thousand psychic wars. I have seen the fnords. Deplatformed on Tumblr and Twitter.

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