Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) have reintroduced legislation to end qualified immunity, a doctrine that protects government officials from individual liability for violating personal and constitutional rights.
The Ending Qualified Immunity Act would restore Americans’ ability to obtain relief when state and local officials, including police officers, violate citizens’ legal and constitutional rights by explicitly stating that the police officers that violate these rights are not protected from civil liability.
The act was originally introduced in June 2020 Pressley and former Rep. Justin Amash (L-Mich.) following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
Speaking to reporters outside the Capitol on Wednesday, Pressley and Markey both condemned the doctrine and announced they will build a new coalition of cosponsors, backed by advocates and families who have been stopped from seeking justice by the doctrine, to end qualified immunity.
“For too long qualified immunity has impeded legal recourse and blocked meaningful accountability,” Pressley said. “It makes no sense that the very people responsible for enforcing the law face no consequences for breaking.”
The qualified immunity doctrine, which the Supreme Court passed in 1967, disallows police officers from being out on trial for unlawful conduct, including the use of excessive or deadly force, unless the person suing proves both that the conduct was unlawful, and the officers knew they were violating “clearly established” law.
But the doctrine contradicts the Ku Klux Klan Act, enacted by Congress in 1871, which was passed to allow lawsuits against state and local authorities who refused to protect African Americans from or participated in lynchings and other acts of racial violence.
“This is a law by the courts, just out of thin air, and it has impacted families,” Pressley said. “They have been blocked from justice, they have been blocked and denied accountability, and so now we need to block qualified immunity and in this unjust doctrine that has been codified and strengthened court case after court case.”
Advocates like Pressley and Markey argue the doctrine was not passed through any democratic process and therefore should not be codified or used in legal proceedings.
When Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan Act, Markey said, they did not intend to have police officers shielded from lawsuits brought by the victims of police brutality and excessive force.
“It’s no coincidence that we have ended up with an epidemic of police violence in our country,” said Markey. “And it’s an epidemic that disproportionately impacts Black people, who are almost three times more likely to be killed by police in the United States than whites. We have a moral obligation to act if we want to change the culture of police violence against people of color and we need to start holding accountable the officers who abuse the positions of power and trust.”
Over the last few years, qualified immunity has become increasingly controversial as advocates for police reform argue that it absolves law enforcement officials of responsibility in the deaths of unarmed citizens, particularly Black Americans.
One of those people was 17-year-old Isaiah Lewis.
According to reports, Lewis was shot by an Edmond, Okla., officer while having a mental health crisis and trying to flee the police. When he broke into a nearby home, officers deployed a taser three times. Thirty seconds later, Officer Denton Scherman then shot Lewis four times. Scherman was absolved of responsibility, with a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver ruling that he was “entitled to qualified immunity.”
“What qualified immunity does basically is ensure, as Charles Dickens might write, a tale of two justices,” said Vicki Lewis, Lewis’s mother, on Wednesday. “So qualified immunity must be abolished because it gives police officers permission to commit violent acts with impunity, especially in the Black community.”
But ending qualified immunity has become a partisan battle in Congress.
After the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis Police Officer, Democrats introduced the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. One of the provisions includes ending qualified immunity – and became a major sticking point that Republicans refused to get behind.
Supporters of the doctrine say officers should not have to fear lawsuits for doing their jobs.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) has since tried to offer a compromise that would allow police departments to be held financially liable in civil suits but not individual officers.
Since Floyd’s murder, at least 25 states are considering some form of qualified immunity reform, according to CNN.
“We’re only three years into this movement,” Markey said on Wednesday. “It’s gonna build, it’s going to help Congresswoman Pressley and I get more and more sponsors. As this becomes more and more clear to people, as they get educated by the headlines every night, as they get activated by the harm that’s being perpetrated, then ultimately we will be able to implement the change that is necessary.”