SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Due to qualified immunity, it’s extremely hard for government officials, including police officers, to be held personally accountable in civil court for violating peoples’ rights.
UC Davis Law Professor Gabriel Chin says the Supreme Court decided decades ago that police officers needed protections against unnecessary civil lawsuits when committing “honest” mistakes.
The problem is that not all mistakes are honest and yet government officials are still protected. Chin said it can cover cover officers who have lied, killed people without reason, shot people, and stolen things in the course of their duty.
“What qualified immunity does is that [it] says, 'Yes, there was a violation. This was illegal, this was unconstitutional, but the plaintiff still loses,'” said Chin.
Chin says even in cases where there is video proof, like in the George Floyd case, the family is still going to have a hard time holding accused former officer Derek Chauvin accountable in civil court.
“Because what the courts look for to get around qualified immunity is basically a case that is very similar, sometimes exactly the same,” Chin said.
For victims or their families to sue successfully, they must show that their rights were “clearly established” - meaning that there must already be a similar case won in court.
“We will never find out what is 'clearly established' because of qualified immunity,” Chin said.
On the other hand, he says officers do not have an easy job.
“This was the Supreme Court's original rationale. If they don’t act, they can get fired or disciplined, and, if they do act, they could be sued,” Chin said.
ABC10 asked Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn about doing away with qualified immunity and if it could impact day-to-day functions for officers.
“Any significant change like that is going to have ramifications, good and bad. I really can’t answer that until I understand what that truly means and what that would entail,” Hahn said.
Chief Hahn says he is open to the idea of a policy change.
Legal experts and human rights groups are calling on the Supreme Court to reconsider qualified immunity for officers. On Monday, House Democrats introduced new legislation that would remove some legal protections for police officers.
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