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 

Anquan Boldin is a former NFL wide receiver, Super Bowl champion, philanthropist and cofounder of the Players Coalition, a social justice nonprofit.

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. [...]

Casondra "Cassi" Pollreis and her sons, Weston Young and Haden Young, in Springdale, Arkansas.

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. [...]

Members of a violent offenders task force raid an apartment in Houston in 2017 to apprehend a suspect.

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

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. [...]

Jim Wallis is the holder of the inaugural Chair in Faith and Justice and the founding Director of the Georgetown University Center on Faith and Justice. Wallis is an author and theologian who founded Sojourners, a progressive Christian grassroots movement that advocates spirituality and social change in America.

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.[...]

Sexual assault of an incarcerated individual is a grave violation of civil rights. Yet thanks to qualified immunity, government officials such as correction officers can get away with the most vile abuses.

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

Perspectives that promote solutions

Columns that offer counterbalance

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. [...]

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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.