photograph of police line with riot shields
"Riot police" by chatchai (via depositphotos)

The governor of Colorado, Jared Polis, signed into law a bill ending qualified immunity in that state, among a series of other reforms aimed at police misconduct. According to the text of the bill, neither any person or public entity can use “neither qualified immunity, nor a defendant’s good faith but erroneous belief in the lawfulness of [their] conduct …” to obviate or defend themselves from a civil suit. Calls to end qualified immunity have been ongoing for years, but have intensified throughout the United States after the death of George Floyd at the hands of then-officer Derek Chauvin of the Minneapolis Police Department. But what exactly is qualified immunity, and what is the case for eliminating it?

Qualified immunity is a doctrine inferred by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) in light of the Third Enforcement Act of 1871. This was part of the bundle of constitutional amendments and federal law passed during the Reconstruction Era to codify and protect the rights of Black people in the southern United States. It allowed citizens to sue individuals acting as officials for any of the States when those officials violated the citizens’ constitutional rights. Prior to the Third Enforcement Act, government officials enjoyed nearly absolute immunity from civil suits for damages.  This meant state government officials acting in their official capacity couldn’t be sued at all for violating constitutional rights. The Third Enforcement Act changed that.

Eventually the SCOTUS invoked the history of government official’s civil immunity to create qualified immunity. In Pierson v. Ray (1967) the court ruled that a common law defense was available to government officials when acting in their official capacity, even when sued under 42 U.S. Code Sec. 1983 (the name under which the Third Enforcement Act now goes). So long as they were acting in good faith and on probable cause, an official was immune from civil liability even if their act did violate a constitutional right.

Numerous court cases have modified this statement of immunity, and provided rules for determining whether it applies in a given case. In Harlow v. Fitzgerald (1982) the SCOTUS reasoned that governmental officials (here, aides to the President) need their official actions to be immunized from liability in order to do their jobs effectively. A subsequent series of cases dealt with the fourth amendment and execution of search warrants by law enforcement officials. In Malley v Briggs (1986) the SCOTUS held that officers were only immune to liability from arrests made on faulty warrants if they had an objectively reasonable belief that there was probable cause for the warrant. The requirement of objective reasonability was upheld for warrantless searches in Anderson v. Creighton (1987).The test for whether an officer has qualified immunity in a given case was articulated in Saucier v. Katz (2001). There was a need for such a judicial test, reasoned the SCOTUS, because qualified immunity had to be determined before a trial could begin. Two facts had to be determined according to the Saucier test: (1) whether a constitutional right was violated and (2) whether the right in question was clearly established at the time of the conduct of the officer in question.

The second criterion has been the cause of much of the public anger concerning qualified immunity. For one it removes any consideration of the reasonability of an officer’s action, objective or subjective. Instead of probing whether that particular officer reasonably believed that their conduct was lawful, the test instead simply asks whether there was any extant, and clearly articulated, constitutional right violated by the officer’s conduct. The issue of whether there was a “clearly established right” has often been interpreted extremely narrowly by courts. Among the starkest manifestations of narrow judicial interpretation comes from Nashville, TN. Police officers sent a dog after Alexander Baxter after he had sat down on the ground and raised his hands in surrender. The dog bit Alexander. However, the officers were granted qualified immunity because the clearest previous judicial ruling on the matter only pertained to suspects who were lying down in surrender. This ruling was made by a Tennessee court and upheld by appeals courts in Tennessee and the federal court presiding in that area.

Should qualified immunity exist in the first place? And if so, how can it be pruned back from its current extent to make it acceptable? Qualified immunity is a form of affirmative defense: that is, a legal way of saying, “I admit I broke the law, but I shouldn’t be (fully) punished for it.” Self-defense is an affirmative defense against criminal prosecution for violent crimes. At trial, the defendant would assert that they did commit an illegal action (e.g., homicide) but that their illegal action was either justified, or should be excused. In general, the possibility of affirmative defenses is desirable. It should be possible to escape punishment, or receive reduced punishment, for illegal actions done under mitigating circumstances.

It is instructive to compare self-defense and qualified immunity. In their current forms, both contend that strictly illegal actions are justified—which is to say morally or pragmatically appropriate despite being illegal. We shouldn’t punish people for their justified actions, because punishing people for doing the right thing is perverse. So if someone killed or injured another person in self-defense, we think it would be wrong to punish them. Does this make sense in the case of government officials violating the rights of citizens? It might, if qualified immunity were a defense that had to be proven at trial. However, the issue of qualified immunity is settled by a summary judgment. It is determined before trial by a judge without the benefit of a full process of evidential discovery and the structured arguments of a trial held before a jury. Being a rule which was created by unelected judges and never tried by a jury of citizens, qualified immunity arguably lacks democratic legitimacy.

The pretrial nature of qualified immunity has been argued for on both practical and moral grounds. These grounds were clearly articulated by the SCOTUS in Harlow v. Fitzgerald. As a practical matter they argue that deciding qualified immunity before trial prevents frivolous litigation, saving massive amounts of time and money. From the moral point of view, they argue that it is unfair to hold government officials to the standards of statutes and judicial decisions which are either unclear or unknown to them. Setting aside the relevance of the practical considerations, the moral considerations are flimsy. After all, as a general rule, normal citizens are not allowed to invoke ignorance of the law to excuse their illegal conduct. Government officials are both better placed to know the relevant laws and have a clearer obligation to be familiar with them. It is their job to enforce, interpret, or enact them.

Numerous other objections assail qualified immunity, coming even from SCOTUS justices of diametrically opposed ideological orientations. It does not seem that the balance of reasons lies in favor of this doctrine. Government officials can invoke the same affirmative defenses as regular citizens at trial and submit them to a jury for consideration. Obliterating qualified immunity from the law will not render them unprotected from baseless lawsuits.

Evan Butts is an adjunct professor at Lincoln University and Farleigh-Dickinson University. He has written articles concerning issues at the borders of epistemology and philosophy of cognitive science. Evan's current research aims to articulate the similarities between the metaphysical theories of William James' pragmatism and Nagarjuna's Buddhist metaphysics. Follow him on Twitter @evanbutts.