SCOTUS backs police officers in pair of qualified immunity decisions

In a serious blow to Democrats advocating for an end to the legal doctrine known as qualified immunity in which police officers receive far-reaching protection against civil lawsuits, the U.S. Supreme Court this week came down squarely on the side of officers, as The Hill reports.

The decisions came in two unsigned summary rulings that included no dissents, and they resulted in the reversal of two appeals court rulings that allowed lawsuits to proceed in two separate matters in Oklahoma and California, respectively.

In both cases, the police officers at issue had responded to domestic dispute calls in which there were allegations of women and/or children being threatened by adult male assailants, according to Fox News, with the Oklahoma case having resulted in the shooting death of a suspect.

According to the justices, the officers involved in the controversies were entitled to receive qualified immunity from suit unless it is demonstrated that they committed a violation of a right that has been “clearly established,” making it a high bar for any plaintiff to clear.

The outcomes in these two cases are significant in light of the ongoing debate regarding qualified immunity, which gained steam following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020.

Opponents of qualified immunity – primarily on the left – argue that it is a doctrine that affords law enforcement personnel an unreasonable degree of protection even when they utilize excessive force and places too much unchecked authority in the hands of officers.

On the other side of the coin, however, are conservatives, who tend to believe that in the absence of qualified immunity, officers would be forced to answer an unending stream of lawsuits simply for making the sorts of difficult, split-second decisions their job requires, driving many out of the profession for good.

Notably, a lack of agreement on ending qualified immunity was reportedly a key factor in the collapse of bipartisan police reform negotiations led by Republican Sen. Tim Scott (SC) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), and result that the former decried as a squandered opportunity “to implement meaningful reform to make our neighborhoods safer and mend the tenuous relationship between law enforcement and communities of color.”

Given the life-and-death dilemmas police confront with tragic regularity, the high court’s finding that “qualified immunity protects ‘all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law,’” there is perhaps new hope that law enforcement personnel can capably carry out their duties without living in constant fear of unending litigation.