Qualified immunity: who does it protect and serve?


The United States Supreme Court is in Washington, D.C. Bill Mason via Unsplash

From Jan. 1 to Nov. 9, there have been nearly 1,700 citizen deaths involving the United States police force. Over 200 of these deaths have occurred in California according to Rick Hill of Disarm the Police in America and Fatal Encounters.

On Nov. 2, the Supreme Court heard its first case on qualified immunity after they refused to hear eight other such cases in June of this year. The doctrine of qualified immunity is often applied to law enforcement officers when a plaintiff alleges that the officer violated his or her constitutional or statutory rights and acted in an egregious and unlawful act.  

Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not participate in this case as it was her first day of hearing oral arguments after her nomination.

The case involves a Texas inmate, Trent Taylor,  who claims that correctional officers violated his constitutional rights based on the Eighth Amendment describing “cruel and unusual punishment.” He claims that jail deputies left him naked for six days in a cell filled with sewage and feces in 2013. The Supreme Court ruling granted Taylor his request to seek compensatory damages against the prison officials.

This year has brought attention to police brutality and misconduct issues in cases involving George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Public Justice is an organization among many who are calling for an end to this clause in the law that allows police officers and government officials to act out in such an egregious manner and commit violent acts.

Of the 200 citizens killed in California by police officers, Kurt Andras Reinhold was a 42-year-old homeless man who was shot and killed in San Clemente by deputies on Sept. 23. 

The county watchdog agency, known as the Office of Independent Review (OIR), is currently monitoring this investigation and will start its own inquest into the incident when “that criminal fact-gathering (by the other agencies) is complete and a decision to charge or not to charge has been made by the District Attorney,” said OIR’s executive director Sergio Perez to Voice of OC .

The question here is whether or not the findings by the OIR will find sufficient evidence to cite this as an avoidable case. If the city’s prosecuting attorney finds that officers are guilty of police misconduct, charges may be filed against them by the district attorney. A grand jury can be empaneled where citizens will work under the auspices of the Superior Court to conduct their own investigation.

The district attorney has 45 days to respond to the family’s complaint, after which plaintiffs may file a wrongful death civil suit. Qualified immunity will shield the officers from criminal and civil penalties if granted.

Trent Taylor’s case originated in 2013. That is seven years to make it to the Supreme Court for a final ruling on qualified immunity in his case. Kurt Reinhold’s family will probably have to wait for a final decision to be made on the case of a wrongful death suit.