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After the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, questions have again been raised about the role of qualified immunity in protecting law enforcement officers from civil liability, particularly when those claims involve white officers and minorities. Floyd's family has yet to file a civil lawsuit against the Minneapolis Police Department or the officers involved, although the State of Minnesota has filed a civil rights charge.
Qualified immunity is a judicially created doctrine that protects law enforcement officers from being sued for innocent mistakes made in high-pressure situations. But critics argue it provides blanket protection for officers with bad intent. Because it is a complex doctrine that can turn on minute questions of both law and fact, theses cases are often appealed to higher courts.
Here is a brief list of federal appellate cases involving allegations of excessive force against minorities. These cases were all decided in 2020. Other qualified immunity cases alleging police misconduct have been decided in federal appellate courts, these are only the ones that dealt with excessive force.
This Eleventh Circuit case was decided on May 20, 2020.Police officers in Madison, Alabama, received a call that "a skinny black man" could potentially be casing a neighborhood. Police instead found a skinny, 57-year-old Indian man dressed similarly to the suspect who spoke no English. He was recently arrived in America to care for his grandchildren. The officer, who knew that the man spoke no English, executed a leg sweep while holding the man's hands behind his back, leading to head and neck injuries that resulted in the man needing spinal surgery and becoming paralyzed. In its decision, the Eleventh Circuit held that there were questions of material fact that precluded summary judgment for the officers.
What happened: The police officer was acquitted of assault in his criminal case in two hung juries and was re-hired. Meanwhile, the civil suit will proceed to trial in Alabama for a jury to decide if the Indian man was resisting arrest. There is video footage of the incident that shows the restrained man shifting his weight just prior to being tackled to the ground.
In a Sixth Circuit Case Decided May 18, 2020 Police in Flint, Michigan, searched an abandoned home for a fugitive in accordance with a search warrant. A neighbor, concerned about the lights in the neighboring house, came out to investigate. The conversation quickly escalated and an officer pepper sprayed the man and arrested him for resisting arrest. Prosecutors subsequently dropped the charges.
What Happened: The homeowner sued the police for false arrest. In its decision, the Sixth Circuit held that whether the man was resisting arrest was a question of fact, not of law, so needed to be decided by a jury.
This Seventh Circuit Case decided on February 5, 2020 arose after a police officer allegedly threw a suspect out of a third-story window, then covered up this misconduct by planting a gun. The man, who was convicted on a gun possession charge, eventually had his conviction reversed. He subsequently sued the police officer, which ended in a settlement.
What Happened: The wording of the settlement agreement (for $5,000) prevents him from suing the other officers who allegedly participated in the cover-up.
Qualified immunity cases are often settled in appellate courts. The doctrine is questioned regularly by legal scholars of varying political views and judicial philosophies. For example, both Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Sonia Sotomayor have publicly questioned qualified immunity in its current state. This term, however, the Supreme Court denied cert on several appellate cases involving qualified immunity.
For now, whether a law enforcement officer gets qualified immunity in excessive force cases is highly questionable and often very fact dependent. The trend in 2020 so far appears to be to have a jury decide whenever in doubt, even when there is existing video footage of the incident.
It will be interesting to see what happens in the George Floyd case, should his estate decided to pursue civil liability.