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The Hurdle of Qualified Immunity in Civil Rights Lawsuits

This content about police brutality was written by a third party and does not represent the views or opinions of Haddad & Sherwin LLP, nor should it be construed as a complete and accurate statement of the law or as legal advice.  For better information about this topic, please contact Haddad & Sherwin LLP.

For victims of police misconduct, overcoming qualified immunity is essential as this is usually the first defense a police officer will raise when they are sued. If the officer does this successfully, the civil rights claim will most likely be dismissed and the victim will not be able to recover any type of compensation.

One way for victims to overcome qualified immunity is to argue that it does not apply by demonstrating two major points to the court. The first being that a violation of constitutional rights occurred, and the second being that these rights were clearly established, i.e., any reasonable officer would have known he/she was violating said rights. This is the only way a victim will be able to recover money damages in a civil rights claim, such as a Section 1983 lawsuit.

Qualified immunity for law enforcement

The qualified immunity doctrine exists to protect government officials – such as police officers – from legal liability. But this doctrine does not apply if the officer knowingly violated the individual’s rights. Essentially, this standard provides officers immunity from being sued for money damages in a civil rights claim.

Clear establishment of a constitutional right

The defense of qualified immunity will not work if the police officer violated a right that was clearly established when the violation occurred. However, the Supreme Court has not been very clear as to when a constitutional right is “clearly established.” In most cases, the courts deem that if an officer had fair notice of said right, it was clearly established. The plaintiff must also demonstrate that there are clear legal precedents indicating that the officer’s behavior violated the law.

Remedies for civil rights violations

If qualified immunity is overcome, it means that the officer can now be held liable for their actions and they may be ordered to compensate the victim. In civil rights cases, the victim can recover compensatory damages and also punitive damages, which aim to punish the offending officer. These are usually awarded in addition to any amounts awarded as compensatory damages.

Though it is by no means impossible to sue an officer or other government official for a civil rights violation, proving that the officer’s alleged behavior violates “clearly established” rights can be very complicated. Furthermore, the fact that courts seem to determine qualified immunity case-by-case is a significant challenge. Remember that an experienced California civil rights attorney can assist you and evaluate your claim in addition to providing you with legal options.

Haddad & Sherwin LLP has a long, successful track record winning wrongful death and other serious civil rights claims for police and jail officer misconduct, throughout Northern and Central California.  Call or email us for a free consultation.

This content about police brutality was written by a third party and does not represent the views or opinions of Haddad & Sherwin LLP, nor should it be construed as a complete and accurate statement of the law or as legal advice.  For better information about this topic, please contact Haddad & Sherwin LLP.