Qualified Immunity Is a “Get Out of Jail Free” Card for Cops: Here’s Why It Has to End

Get out of Jail Free

Ever notice how cops are hardly ever held accountable for their misconduct?

Qualified immunity is a big reason why.

Wait… qualified immunity? If you’re not sure what that is, you’re not alone. But the more we’ve learned about it, the more outraged we’ve become. Read on for four real-life examples of how qualified immunity lets police violate people’s rights without punishment. 

(TW: What you’re about to read contains mention of self-harm and gun violence.)

What Is Qualified Immunity?

Qualified immunity was created by courts to limit the ability of victims of police misconduct to hold police officers accountable for the violation of their constitutional rights. Basically, it’s a “Get Out of Jail Free” card for cops. 

Back in 1871 Congress gave American citizens the right to sue any public official, such as a police officer, who violates their rights—which is… actually a really good idea! People absolutely SHOULD have the right to seek justice if they are mistreated by a public official, right?

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court’s qualified immunity doctrine gutted the basic premise behind that idea. The Court said that anyone claiming their rights were abused by a police officer has to be able to show that the officer violated “clearly established” law—meaning that the officer’s action was recognized as unlawful by a previous court ruling. 

Thanks to this ruling, even if it’s acknowledged that a police officer has mistreated someone, that officer can still get away with it, as long as a court hasn’t already ruled that his or her exact action was unconstitutional. Yes, that’s absurd—and very dangerous.

Let’s check out what it means in real life. 

Setting a Man on Fire / Texas, 2017

A distraught man holding a lighter doused himself in gasoline in front of three police officers and threatened to end his life. One officer cautioned the other two not to tase him, as it might set him on fire. They tased him anyway. He caught fire, the house he was in burned down, and he eventually died. 

His family brought a lawsuit against the cops, but it was dismissed. Why? Because no officer had ever previously been found liable for violating someone's rights in that exact same way—meaning that there wasn’t a previous case in which a police officer tased a person who had doused themselves in gasoline.

Shooting a Child / Georgia, 2014

In pursuit of a suspect, officers entered an unrelated family’s yard. Police encountered 6 little kids, who they forced onto the ground at gunpoint. One officer shot at their non-threatening family dog, but he missed and wounded a 10-year-old boy. (The boy survived.)

The boy’s family filed a lawsuit, but it was ultimately dismissed because the court could find no similar case clearly establishing that shooting at a family dog and injuring a child was a violation of someone’s rights. 

Assaulting a Man in His Own Front Yard / Ohio, 2016

Police in plain clothes pulled up in front of a man’s house in an unmarked car. None of them identified themselves as a police officer. They asked the man whether he lived there and he said he did. They challenged him, he resisted, and they tackled him to the ground and punched him repeatedly. 

He was arrested and taken to jail. Eventually the bogus charges were dropped. He sued the officers but, you guessed it, the officers were granted qualified immunity and the lawsuit was dismissed. This highlights a big “Catch-22” in qualified immunity cases: As fewer courts rule on cases, fewer precedents are set. With fewer precedents set, police can get away with misconduct more often.

Stealing $225,000 / California, 2013

Police officers executed a search warrant on the property of two men. Afterward the men accused the officers of stealing more than $225,000 during the search and sued them. 

The US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said that "the City Officers ought to have recognized that the alleged theft was morally wrong," but let them off the hook, determining, absent clearly established case law, that there was no way for them to know that stealing money was a violation of someone’s rights, despite the fact that stealing money is clearly against the law! 

Standing Up for Accountability

Qualified immunity is clearly being used to let cops get away with behavior that would land any regular person in jail. 

The good news is it doesn't have to be this way.. In fact, it’s already underway. 

In 2020, pressured by activists and rights organizations, Colorado became the first state to end qualified immunity. New Mexico followed suit, and now Washington State is working on similar legislation. 

End Qualified Immunity Today

What Colorado did wasn’t easy. Police unions fought them every step of the way and tried, unsuccessfully, to scare the public into turning against the legislation. The truth is that dozens of states have tried to pass legislation to end qualified immunity—and police unions have helped defeat those bills almost every time. 

In Washington, though, there’s been a surprise twist: The state chapter of the Fraternal Order of the Police actually testified in favor of the bill!

That’s all the more reason for us to keep the pressure on our local elected officials no matter where we live. Colorado showed us what can happen if we work together for change. Let’s end qualified immunity and finally hold police officers accountable for their misconduct!