Members Only | April 23, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

There was a brief time when civil courts could force cops to pay damages. Then SCOTUS stepped in

Legal historian Mia Brett explains how we got here.

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Ex-cop Derek Chauvin was convicted this week of murdering George Floyd, marking the first time a white police officer has been convicted in the death of a Black person in the history of Minnesota, and the second time a police officer had been convicted of killing a civilian in the state. While the verdict was a victory, it will do very little to curb police brutality or systemic racism in policing without serious reforms in policing training and legal accountability. Even in this trial, Chauvin was presented as an outlier cop who violated procedure, rather than as an officer with many excessive-force complaints in his history, who had been protected by the system for years. 

One of the biggest impediments to police accountability for killing civilians is the legal doctrine known as qualified immunity. Qualified immunity shields police officers from civil lawsuits brought by the public to protect government officials who make “reasonable” mistakes. This means that people who have had their civil rights violated by police officers cannot sue and they must rely on disciplinary action by the police department or the prosecutor bringing charges to hold officers accountable.

While civil lawsuits can only provide financial accountability, they could be an important tool in changing the culture around policing. Individual police officers might think twice about their actions if they thought their own money was on the line. Additionally lawsuits bring press attention that would likely be unwanted by police departments. Civilians must have their own mechanism for holding police officers accountable and cannot be forced to rely on systems set up to protect police.

While civil lawsuits can only provide financial accountability, they could be an important tool in changing the culture around policing, writes Editorial Board member Mia Brett. Individual police officers might think twice about their actions if they thought their own money was on the line.

The right for civilians to bring lawsuits against public officials who violate constitutional rights dates to the passage of the Civil Rights Act, aka the Enforcement Act, of 1871. Initially passed to fight the Ku Klux Klan, the law empowered the president to suspend habeas corpus, a writ to challenge why someone is being imprisoned, to combat the KKK. In 1961, in Monroe v. Pape, the Supreme Court held that Section 1, now amended and codified as 42 USC § 1983, known as Section 1983, could be used to sue state officers who violated a person’s constitutional rights.

In that case, 13 Chicago cops broke into the Monroe home without a warrant, ransacked it and made Monroe and his wife stand naked in the living room before taking Monroe to the police station to interrogate him for 10 hours about a murder. Monroe brought suit against each officer as well as the city under the 1871 Civil Rights Act. While dismissed by the District Court and the Court of Appeals, because the officers were performing government functions, the Supreme Court disagreed with respect to the officers but dismissed the case against the city. The court held that the purpose of the 1871 Civil Rights Act was “to give a remedy to parties deprived of constitutional rights, privileges, and immunities by an official’s abuse of his position.”

While Monroe remains important precedent, a 1967 case weakened it with respect to police officers by creating the legal doctrine of “qualified immunity.” Pierson v. Ray was a case coming out of desegregation efforts in the South. It involved the arrest of 15 Episcopal priests, 12 white and three Black, who tried going to a coffee shop in Jackson, Mississippi, while participating in the Mississippi Freedom Rides in 1961.

The priests were arrested for “breach of peace” after refusing to leave the coffee shop after being ordered to. They were each sentenced to four months in jail and a $200 fine. Represented by the Congress of Racial Equality, they sued for damages against the local judge and police under Section 1983, claiming false arrest and imprisonment.

While the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals found the Mississippi “breach of peace” law allowing the police to arrest the priests unconstitutional, it did not hold them liable, because they could not be expected to know which laws were constitutional or not. Additionally the appeals court ruled the judge was immune from prosecution.

While the Supreme Court ruled a new trial was warranted, it held that while police officers did not have “unqualified immunity,” they may be excused “from liability for acting under a statute they reasonably believed to be valid but that was later held unconstitutional, on its face or as applied”—in other words, “qualified immunity.”

While this was meant to be a small exception carved out for officers who acted in “good faith,” the doctrine was greatly expanded in 1982 with Harlow v. Fitzgerald. After Harlow, police officers were generally shielded from civil liability, even if acting in bad faith, unless plaintiffs could show the officer violated a “clearly established” right that a “reasonable person” would know. The burden of proof therefore was moved to the shoulders of the plaintiff and “reasonableness” became an issue. Additionally plaintiffs were required to show a legal precedent involving the “specific context” and “particular conduct” at issue. Otherwise, the officers were shielded from liability. Bottom line? This is rarely achieved. The result? Cops act like they can do no wrong.

Ending qualified immunity is a necessary step in empowering civilians and holding police officers accountable for their violence. The United States House of Representatives has passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would end qualified immunity. The act would also ban chokeholds, no-knock warrants in federal drug cases, create a nationwide database of police misconduct, prohibit racial and religious profiling, and redirect funds to community-based policing programs.

While the bill would be an important step in police reform, Republicans in the United States Senate are blocking it with a competing bill that is not as strong. Qualified immunity was created in an attempt to protect police officers during segregation and continuing its use only serves to perpetuate systemic racism and violent policing.

Mia Brett

Mia Brett, PhD, is a legal historian who writes about the construction of race and gender in American history. She lives with her dog Tchotchke. You can find her tweeting @queenmab87.

Published in cooperation with Alternet. 

Mia Brett, PhD, is the Editorial Board's legal historian. She lives with her gorgeous dog, Tchotchke. You can find her @queenmab87.

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