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Friday, September 04, 2020

Getting qualified immunity wrong

This letter, from the lobbyist from the Oregon Coalition of Police and Sheriffs to an Oregon legislative committee considering a host of police-reform bills. Benefit of the doubt: The author (according to his LinkedIn page) is not an attorney and he might be talking about some state tort qualified immunity doctrine  rather than § 1983 federal qualified immunity. But presuming he is talking about § 1983, this is not good.

The letter says:

• "Qualified immunity is a legal principle that applies not only to law enforcement officers, but all public employees and officials" (emphasis in original): The only legally accurate statement in here.

• "It states that a public official cannot be sued . . . so long as those actions occur legally within the scope of the public employee's official duties. Qualified immunity is never a shield for illegal activity. It is not applicable if a public employee is acting outside the scope of their responsibilities." (emphasis in original). This is so wrong, which is why I was unsure whether he was talking about a state tort defense as opposed to § 1983. But as an explanation of § 1983, it conflates "under color of law" with immunity. A public official acts under color, and subject to liability, when performing his public job responsibilities; whether immunity applies is a second and distinct question. And the argument ignores the mounting cases in which courts find that an officer, under color of law, did something unlawful (e.g., making a prisoner sit in feces for four hours or stealing property in executing a warrant) but is not liable because no prior officer did the precise thing in the precise manner within that federal circuit.

• "The purpose of Qualified Immunity is to ensure that litigation does not completely place a public employee at the mercy of litigious counterparties." Sort of. It does not protect those employees just because. It protects them so that they will do a better job of policing when they can exercise judgment free from the fear of litigation. But when the result of a doctrine is that some (many?) officers acting as if they are unchecked, that doctrine may not be serving its intended purpose.

• I will not quote the whole thing, but the letter argues that qualified immunity also protects legislators. who are "uniquely and powerfully positioned to broadly deprive individuals of their rights." Again assuming he is talking about immunity from federal suit, he is wrong in the opposite direction. Legislators enjoy absolute immunity for their votes and legislative actions. But that distinction is based on the fact that individual legislators are less able to harm someone, there are political and electoral checks, and any violation is caused by the enforcement of legislation, remedied by a suit against the enforcing executive (who, of course, can claim qualified immunity). Executive immunity is (and should be) more limited than legislative immunity because executives interact with the public and can act individually to violate rights. Oh, and they can shoot people.

Again, if he is attempting to talk about state tort immunity, ignore the above--I know nothing about Colorado law so I do not know if what he says is correct. But if he is attempting to talk about federal claims under § 1983 or if he confused the two, this is a poor piece of advocacy.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on September 4, 2020 at 01:31 PM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process | Permalink

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