Faces, victims, issues and debates surrounding qualified immunity: A USA TODAY Opinion series
Most people believe that if someone violates their constitutional rights, they have a right to sue.
But that's often not true. If the person they're looking to sue is a public official, particularly a public safety official, it could be nearly impossible to get a day in court. That's because qualified immunity, a doctrine created by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1960s and emboldened in the 1980s, makes most government workers largely immune to civil lawsuits.
In June, USA TODAY Opinion began exploring the issue of qualified immunity and the need for reform on a national scale. The ongoing series will include personal stories from victims and their families, views from police departments and officers accused of abuse, and perspectives from criminal justice experts to explain the issues around qualified immunity.
The project was made possible in part by a grant from Stand Together, which does not provide editorial input.
The voices of people affected
Roadside assistance caught the cop who killed my cousin. Justice shouldn't be so rare.
By Anquan Boldin
Six years ago, my cousin Corey Jones, a musician, was driving home from a gig in Jupiter, Florida, when his SUV broke down. He was on the phone with roadside assistance when an undercover officer pulled up in an unmarked vehicle.
The officer, Nouman Raja, asked my cousin whether everything was OK. Corey, who was still on the phone, responded yes.
"Really?" Raja said in a condescending tone.
Then six shots rang out. Three struck Corey. And he was dead. [...]
He was asleep in his car. Police woke him up and created a reason to kill him.
By Sarah Gelsomino
Luke Stewart, a 23-year-old Black man, was asleep in his parked car on March 13, 2017, when he was approached by police officers Matthew Rhodes and Louis Catalani. He was parked legally in Euclid, a suburb of Cleveland, and he wasn't posing a danger to anyone. [...]
A rookie cop mistook my sons for gang members and searched them at gunpoint. Where's our justice?
By Cassi Pollreis
My boys were taught that the police officers who protect and serve our communities are to be respected and trusted. That trust was destroyed on Jan. 8, 2018, when they were stopped at gunpoint, forced to lie on the ground, handcuffed and searched. [...]
Deputizing gone wild: Federal task forces give state and local cops ridiculously broad immunity
By Nick Sibilla
Because task force officers can be viewed as both state and federal officers, their hybrid status gives them ample maneuverability to avoid accountability.
Consider the tragic case of Jimmy Atchison, a 21-year-old Black man who was fatally shot in the face while unarmed and hiding in a closet. [...]
More from those denied a day in court
- He died after a cop kneeled on his neck for 14 minutes. Now, his family can finally sue.
- I refused to lie under oath for the state of Arizona. It cost me my job.
- A bad cop sexually assaulted me. Qualified immunity protected him and his boss.
- My brother wanted to go to the bathroom. Police killed him instead.
- My son was killed by a park ranger. Qualified immunity means I may never see justice.
Columns that examine the issue
'I had seen that smirk before': Vestiges of slavery still haunt our legal system
By Tiffany Wright
It has been more than a year since I watched Derek Chauvin murder George Floyd. Of the many haunting moments from that video, it still strikes me that as Floyd and witnesses pleaded with Chauvin to stop, the then-officer and now convicted murderer looked directly into bystanders’ cameras and smirked. That disquieting, macabre smile reflected a murderer certain that he would escape accountability. [...]
Want to fix racist policing? Take away immunity. Give officers more ethics training instead.
By Jim Wallis
When we are granting these officers the power over life and death, we should ensure their consciences are informed by the best of our religious and moral traditions. Anything less is criminal negligence. [...]
Want to build trust? Quit trampling our right to hold government officials accountable.
By Aloe Blacc
Police and other government officials have a lot of responsibility, and like everyone else, they make mistakes. But creating a cultural and legal practice where their errors are buried also means they rarely have the opportunity to prove they acted with good intentions. This hurts everyone. [...]
Sex abuse by prison guards violates incarcerated people's rights. How is that not obvious?
By New York Sen. Julia Salazar
I am acutely aware of how difficult it is for any sexual assault survivor to obtain redress, even outside of the jail or prison system. It can be especially difficult and dangerous for incarcerated individuals to pursue justice when their abuser happens to be a correction officer. And this is in large part because of qualified immunity. [...]
More from experts
- This is Justice Breyer's last chance to stop the slide toward absolute immunity for federal officers
- I've seen enough police abuse in my career to know qualified immunity harms good cops.
- How the KKK Act could help protect and enforce constitutional rights for all of us.
- The power we give police officers is sacred.We have a moral duty to hold them accountable.
- I was a victim of police brutality. It's why I became a cop.
- Suing cops takes forever because they get 3 chances to appeal. Why should they?
- Supreme Court just doubled down on flawed qualified immunity rule. Why that matters.
- Ending qualified immunity won't ruin cops' finances. It will better protect the public.
- If you're a college and you target religious student groups, qualified immunity will not protect you.
- Qualified immunity: 8 myths about why police need it to protect the public
- Administrators who violate 1st Amendment rights do not deserve protection of qualified immunity
- University officials flagrantly violate student speech rights. Courts let them off the hook.
Perspectives that promote solutions
- Colorado took a revolutionary step to reform policing. Here's how we did it.
- We transformed police accountability in NYC. States should follow suit.
- Ben & Jerry: We white people need to use our power to fight police abuse.
Columns that offer counterbalance
- When police are out of line, they should face remedial action. But don't end qualified immunity.
- Police recruitment was already tough.Attacks on qualified immunity make matters worse.
Calls to reform qualified immunity are coming from left and right. I'm still skeptical.
Editorials that push for change
Courts must hold rogue cops accountable everywhere – even at the dentist
By The Editorial Board
In parts of the U.S., federal officers enjoy near-absolute immunity from lawsuits, no matter how badly they behave. Under a 1988 law, they cannot be sued in state courts. And in federal courts, an avenue to sue that was opened in 1971 has been all but closed off.
Congress could fix the problem, but the issue has gotten little attention. Courts should make clear that out-of-control cops won't get a free pass to abuse people anywhere in the U.S. [...]
More from USA TODAY's Editorial Board
- 'They took my life away': Teen girl jailed by untrustworthy cop must be allowed to sue
- Police case gave Supreme Court a chance to protect your rights to record cops. It whiffed.
- Supreme Court must strip federal agents of absolute immunity
- No one should be immune from accountability when they harm another person.
- Hope for reforming qualified immunity? It may lie in a compromise bill
- Supreme Court needs to be clear about qualified immunity
- Ending qualified immunity could cost lives, livelihoods
- On qualified immunity reform, states are leading on policing rogue officers
- Five ways to reform policing, starting with qualified immunity
- Fix qualified immunity travesty that lets police off the hook after violating civil rights
Newsletters to keep you updated
Subscribe to our newsletters for the latest insights and updates in your inbox.
- A look at the latest qualified immunity headlines
- The conversation about police reform isn't going away
- The Supreme Court's about-face on qualified immunity
- The Supreme Court weighs in on qualified immunity
- What's going on with qualified immunity?
From around the USA TODAY Network
- Austin American-Statesman Editorial: Texans deserve a day in court against rogue federal agents
- The (Polk County, Florida) Ledger guest column: Does Congress really want professional police reform?
- Seacoast Online guest column: The chief’s wrong message to police officers regarding qualified immunity
- Des Moines Register Editorial: Iowa Board of Regents elevates kowtowing to Republican lawmakers over health and safety
- (Palm Springs) Desert Sun guest column: A justice system that protects bad cops also hurts good ones
- Memphis Commercial Appeal guest column: Why qualified immunity privilege is bad public policy and must be eliminated
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More about the project
This series is meant to inform the public about the issue of qualified immunity. It is supported in part by a grant from Stand Together, a nonprofit organization that supports projects that address major civic and social issues including criminal justice, education, poverty, and immigration.