For so long, the ability to successfully prosecute police brutality is hindered by ideas such as qualified immunity. Historically, the government has been able to protect police from prosecution and civil liability. Justice has been suppressed and deterred by outdated legal protections. In 1967, the Supreme Court established a doctrine called Qualified Immunity Doctrine, which applies to government officials in order to shield police from tort actions brought on by people hurt by police. In 1982, the Supreme Court actually broadened the scope of the doctrine by adding in language that made it even harder for a plaintiff to prevail against a government official. This established that the government actor has to violate a “clearly established law” in order to be held liable to a tort action. SCOTUS did not take very many appeals regarding the qualified immunity regarding police officers, and the few that they did overwhelmingly were in favor of the defendant officers. This is where our problem lies. Under Georgia law, O.C.G.A. §50-21-25(a) states that “a state officer or employee who commits a tort while acting within the scope of his or her official duties or employment is not subject to a lawsuit or liability therefore.”
However, recently the U.S. Supreme Court has begun to criticize the doctrine because of its unfairness amid the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. In Floyd’s case there is a legitimate question as to whether the officer intended for Mr. Floyd to die, which would fall outside the scope of the officers official duties, meaning qualified immunity may not be available in that case. However Ms. Taylor was the victim of the police entering into the wrong house for a no-knock warrant, and firing back towards her when her boyfriend shot at what he thought were intruders. Here, the attorney for the police will likely try and claim qualified immunity. There was a mistake made as to the location that they were at and the trained officers may be liable for the death of Ms. Taylor. However, this may not matter because, if the court finds that the police made their decision based on a discretionary function that was in good faith, then there will be no liability on the part of the police. This goes to show that SCOTUS has no choice but to reconsider a doctrine that is rooted in ancient practices. The court system has finally realized the disproportionate amount of people affected by police misconduct and that there cannot be much more of it tolerated.
Even though the police are covered under qualified immunity, there is still hope for people who are victims of police brutality, excessive force, or any other violation of civil rights covered under Section 1983 for the United States Code. Currently, as long as there is a violation of a clearly established constitutional right, then a plaintiff will have an easier time winning a lawsuit. Damages can be recovered for a case against an officer in the same way that can be recovered from if there was a lawsuit between two private citizens.
If you are a victim of what you think may be a violation of your civil rights, contact our firm to see if you have a viable case!