New York City police officers are no longer protected from civil lawsuits, as legislation passed March 26 by the New York City Council (“NYCC”) ends qualified immunity for them. That term refers to a legal principle protecting government officials, such as law enforcement officers, from being sued for violating someone’s civil rights. The vote passed 37 to 11, despite strong opposition from the New York City Police Benevolent Association (“PBA”) and other police unions.
Now, a person who believes a New York City police officer used excessive force or subjected them to an illegal search can seek redress through a lawsuit. While New York City is the largest jurisdiction limiting an officers’ defense of qualified immunity, the states of Colorado and Connecticut have passed similar laws.
The new law does not mean that police officers are personally liable if sued in civil court. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio made it clear in a radio interview that any financial penalty is borne by the New York City Police Department and the city, not an individual officer.
According to the NYCC, the bill increases accountability by effectively ending qualified immunity as a defense for certain civil rights violations. It notes that New York courts have created their own version of the federal doctrine of qualified immunity, shielding police officers performing “discretionary functions” from civil liability.
The state and federal versions of qualified immunity “have effectively prevented countless victims of police brutality and their families from obtaining financial damages and holding officers and the cities that employ them accountable.”
Is the Supreme Court Next?
Until recently, the U.S. Supreme Court was unsupportive of lawsuits from police violence victims and those claiming law enforcement officers violated their constitutional rights. That could change. There is speculation that the Supreme Court may want to peel back the qualified immunity doctrine.
In an unsigned opinion issued in November 2020, the Supreme Court stated it was possible to take the doctrine of qualified immunity too far. This concerned the case of a Texas prisoner who was kept in a pair of “shockingly unsanitary” cells, filled with feces, for six days in 2013.
In February 2021, the Supreme Court instructed the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to reconsider a decision regarding qualified immunity. That case involved an inmate who alleges a corrections officer sprayed him in the face with a chemical for no apparent reason.
These rulings suggest the Supreme Court might rethink the law of qualified immunity, as two attorneys from the Institute for Justice wrote in USA Today. Perhaps the Justices will eventually reintroduce common sense to the qualified immunity doctrine.