Debate swirls around ‘qualified immunity’ that protects police officers from lawsuits

Renewed debate over qualified immunity
Renewed debate over qualified immunity

HOUSTON – Amid the nationwide calls for greater police accountability, a legal doctrine known as “qualified immunity” is becoming a larger part of the national discussion.

Qualified immunity can shield government officials, including police officers, from civil liability, even if their actions are later determined to be a violation of constitutional rights.

The U.S. Supreme Court first allowed qualified immunity in the 1960s, when justices stated officers could not be held liable for enforcing a law that was later struck down as unconstitutional. In the 1980s, justices added officers could not be held liable if they did not violate a “clearly established” constitutional right.

University of Houston law professor Emily Berman said officers are granted qualified immunity if they can show their actions were done in good faith. Berman said debate arises over the phrase “clearly established.”

“The line is not necessarily as clear cut as it could be,” Berman said. “The line is somewhere in there and different judges are going to find it in different places."

Critics argue “clearly established” sets too high a burden because it requires the law to predict every single situation an officer can face before a precedent is set.

“That standard needs to go away because it is really prohibiting people being able to seek justice,” said Andre Segura, legal director the ACLU of Texas. “Our opinion is qualified immunity should be abolished.”

However, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, Joe Gamaldi argues removing this protection would open officers up to a barrage of lawsuits from everyone they arrest.