Government Officials and Qualified Immunity 

Government Officials and Qualified Immunity 

Personal Injury Lawyer

In an era plagued with civil unrest against government officials, it has become even more important to understand the inner workings of America’s legal administration. Recently, news stations and lawmakers across the country have incessantly mentioned the term “qualified immunity” in response to the onslaught of brutality claims made against American police officers. Consequently, it is imperative that American citizens understand the history and relevance of qualified immunity in the 21st century. 

Qualified immunity is a type of legal immunity, which typically provides a specific freedom from any legal obligations to perform certain actions or suffer from penalties in the case of error. Specifically, here, qualified immunity protects a government official from any claims or lawsuits alleging that the official violated an individual’s rights. While some claims may still prevail, the immunity only allows suits where the official violated a clearly established statutory or constitutional right. Qualified immunity has generally been traced back to the immunities available to government actors when officials were sued for common law torts during the 19th century. Case law indicates that when determining what rights are clearly established, courts are required to consider whether a reasonable official would have known that the official’s conduct violated the rights of the complaining party. 

While the immunity appears to grant government officials the ability to easily infringe upon the rights of American citizens, the Supreme Court has held that qualified immunity poses a variety of benefits to officials and communities alike. In Pearson v. Callahan, the Court stated that “qualified immunity balances two important interests–the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.” In Harlow v. Fitzgerald, the Supreme Court held that federal government officials are inherently entitled to qualified immunity because of the “need to protect officials who are required to exercise discretion and the related public interest in encouraging the vigorous exercise of official authority.” This landmark case clearly established how an injured party could overcome qualified immunity by showing that the official’s conduct “clearly violated established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Even though the Court originally noted that qualified immunity was not intended to provide a pass for lawless conduct, that portion of the opinion has commonly been overlooked by modern courts. In Anderson v. Creighton, the Court held that when an officer of the law conducts a search that violates a citizen’s Fourth Amendment rights, that officer is entitled to qualified immunity if the officer proves that a reasonable official could have also believed that the search constitutionally complied with the Fourth Amendment. Although apparently objective, Anderson not only expanded the freedom to act for government officials, but also decreased the overall accountability for such actions. In Saucier v. Katz, the Supreme Court held that a ruling on a qualified immunity defense must be made early in the trial court’s proceeding because qualified immunity is a “defense to stand trial, not merely a defense from liability.” Accordingly, courts are required to resolve cases involving qualified immunity early in the litigation process, usually before the discovery stage even begins. In response, the Court introduced a two-part test for whether a government official is entitled to qualified immunity: (1) whether the facts indicate that a constitutional right has been violated and (2) if so, a court must then look at whether that right was clearly established at the time of the alleged conduct. Under this Saucier test, qualified immunity applies unless the official’s conduct violated such a right. 

While qualified immunity may have seemingly innocent roots, it is arguable that it now ensures that protected government officials are rarely saddled with the burdens of participating in the justice system they swore an oath to protect, which opens the door for a variety of questions. As a result, the Supreme Court needs to hear a new case on the validity of qualified immunity in light of America’s widespread police brutality pandemic. Ultimately, it may be time for the Court to protect the rights of the People more at the expense of the government’s comfort. 

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