We must eliminate “qualified immunity,” and hold police accountable for their conduct.
Excerpts from the Article:
James King was a college student walking to work in 2014 when two officers in street clothes stopped him and asked his name. King answered them, but one tore the wallet from his pocket anyway. Thinking he was being mugged, King ran.
The officers tackled him and beat him badly – so badly that bystanders called 911. One officer later said he beat King in the head and face “as hard as I could, as fast as I could.” It quickly became clear law enforcement had the wrong man, but prosecutors put King on trial for resisting arrest and assaulting an officer.
King was acquitted, but when he tried to sue the officers for violating his civil rights, the Supreme Court ruled they were protected against legal action.
Evading consequences for injustice
King’s case is one in a lengthy list of incidents where law enforcement officers violate the rights of citizens and hardly ever face consequences. It’s probably one reason polls show faith in state and local governments falling.
The lack of accountability is due in part to a policy crafted largely by court decisions over the past 50 years that protect government employees from lawsuits. Almost no legislature voted to create “qualified immunity,” but it protects police and other officials from civil suits anyway. You can sue a doctor or lawyer if their recklessness causes egregious harm, or even death. But you typically can’t sue an official who happens to work for the Department of Veterans Affairs or the Internal Revenue Service.
Sadly, there are countless stories like King’s.
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In January 2017, Muhammad Muhaymin walked into a public community center in Phoenix to use the restroom. A member of the staff tried to prevent him from bringing his service dog, a chihuahua, and eventually called the police. When officers responded, they found that Muhaymin was not behaving violently or aggressively but had an outstanding warrant for possession of a marijuana pipe. They attempted to arrest him, but Muhaymin protested, seeking assurances about what would happen to his dog. At least six officers got on top of Muhaymin to hold him down, with some putting their knees on his neck and head over a period of nearly eight minutes.
Muhaymin, a 43-year-old experiencing homelessness and mental health issues, repeatedly pleaded for help and said he could not breathe.
This was how Muhaymin died. The video, like so many others, is excruciating to watch.
A police investigation determined the officers’ actions were “in policy,” and county prosecutors found no behavior that warranted criminal prosecution – though advocates, including Vice Mayor Carlos Garcia, have made calls to reopen the investigation. That left his family with only one option to seek justice: civil court.
Muhaymin’s sister filed a wrongful death suit, and the city approved a $5 million settlement in November. A judge even ruled that the individual officers involved aren’t entitled to qualified immunity for their conduct. But that is a rare outcome, and the officers still managed to avoid criminal accountability and continue in their jobs.
Unfortunately, there are many stories like Muhaymin’s, but because of the doctrine of qualified immunity, few families get their day in court, often in spite of egregious misconduct by government officials.
Aloe Blacc is a Grammy nominated, American singer-songwriter and philanthropist.
The point is not whether officials acted unforgivably, but whether a victim’s loved ones have an opportunity to plead their case in an impartial venue. Officers should have to answer to more than just their own department and the prosecutors who count on them. No one in America should be above the law.
Time for change
In an era when many believe big government is stripping away our civil rights, qualified immunity tramples our most basic right to a fair trial against government officials.
Qualified immunity isn’t in the Constitution. Instead, it was crafted by court decisions over the past five decades, starting in 1967 with Pierson v. Ray, that have mostly continued to expand this policy of shielding government employees from civil lawsuits.
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There’s no reason it needs to be this way. Multiple bills have been introduced in Congress and in the states over the years to reform qualified immunity. Congress and state legislatures can act at any time to revise those rules. That action is way overdue. We need reform that gives everyone an equal chance to make their case.
Police and other government officials have a lot of responsibility, and like everyone else, they make mistakes. But creating a cultural and legal practice where their errors are buried also means they rarely have the opportunity to prove they acted with good intentions. This hurts everyone. And until it changes, we shouldn’t be surprised if faith in government continues to decline.