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Rhode Island Personal Injury Attorney / Blog / Personal Injury / Why Qualified Immunity Is So Controversial

Why Qualified Immunity Is So Controversial


Just like any government actor or agent, you can sue a police officer, or police department, if the officer acts negligently, and causes harm to you. What the officer has to do to be actionable is one thing—but even if you do prove that the officer did something wrong or negligently to cause you an injury, you still have a second hurdle—getting over what is known as qualified immunity.

What is Qualified Immunity?

The law provides to all government actors and employees, immunity from being sued, under certain circumstances.

When it comes to police officers, the law recognizes that officers need to make snap decisions, in the heat of duty, and that officers cannot be forced to sit and do a legal analysis of every action they take in the field.

So, if an officer does something that hurts someone, they are immune from suit, if what they did has previously been established by a law or court, as being illegal. Officers cannot be sued unless they violate any clearly (previously) established law, or right.

A Powerful Defense

That seems obvious and seems to make sense. But it actually can make it very difficult to sue a police officer, because to avoid immunity, all an officer needs to do is to show that the situation that he or she is being sued for, is unique, and different, from any other situation that a court has ruled on in the past.

And that’s not very difficult—no two situations are exactly unique or identical. Any two seemingly similar situations can be differentiated on minor details. So long as the officer can highlight those differences, and thus show that there hasn’t been a court decision or an established law written for a situation like the one the officer is being sued for, the officer is immune from lawsuits and liability.

Too Much Immunity?

Many people feel qualified immunity has been abused; it is often an issue in presidential elections, and it tends to make the news when there are reports of excessive force or police brutality.

And qualified immunity has been used by police officers, to successfully defend against some pretty seemingly terrible, careless, and dangerous decisions in the field.

But it doesn’t just apply in brutality cases; decisions about whether to engage in a high speed pursuit, or decisions an officer makes to fire a handgun, all come down to whether or not qualified immunity applies.

The immunity doesn’t just apply to police. Other government agents, such as those that work in government hospitals, or public school teachers, also are shielded from immunity for their actions, based on qualified immunity.

Is Reform Coming?

As of now, there has been no reform of any qualified immunity laws, which still apply, and remain a hurdle for people to overcome in injury cases that allege liability for police actions.

If you were injured by the actions of a police officer, ask us for help. Contact our Rhode Island personal injury lawyers at Robert E. Craven & Associates at 401-453-2700 today.





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