Police Misconduct and Qualified Immunity

Police cars depicting police misconduct

We all know how much police misconduct has been in the news. Let’s take a closer look at the legal aspects and what qualified immunity is by examining two cases.

Byron E. Clemons is a Bay City, Michigan resident. He is suing Clare County Sheriff’s Office sergeant Aaron Miller in federal court for tasering him while he was under custody and in handcuffs.

According to the lawsuit, here is what is alleged to have happened:

Clemons was pushed into a restraint chair after asking officers to videotape his booking. At least four officers held Clemons down in the restraint chair with his hands still cuffed behind his back. Someone stated, “now we’re going to play games.”

Then Miller threatened to use the taser on Clemons if he didn’t calm down. Then, he applied electric shock to Clemons’ thigh.

When Clemons told officers his arm was stuck, there was no response.

Miller continued to threaten to shock Clemons. He then shocked Clemons a second time, longer than the first.

The lawsuit goes on to state that Clemons was not resisting officers, attempting escape, or posing a physical threat to officers.

Police Under Fire

The news has been filled with stories about police misconduct. It’s impossible to cover the scope of what is going on between protestors and leaders of the cities and states and the police who work in those states.

Police in Atlanta and elsewhere are calling in sick in mass numbers in some districts.

Although police unions say this isn’t an organized strike, they do acknowledge police are tired of the abuse. (Police officers aren’t legally allowed to go on strike.)

In Atlanta, people are protesting murder charges brought against Garrett Rolfe for the shooting death of Rayshard Brooks.

What is Qualified Immunity?

Both of the cases mentioned above highlight two sides of a raging debate. The dispute is about what is an acceptable level of force for police to use, and what isn’t.

If the lawsuit for Byron Clemons tells the facts accurately, it reveals an abuse of power by a sheriff’s sergeant using a taser.

On the other hand, some would argue that a police officer trying to protect his life when a taser was used against him is now unfairly being charged with murder.

How do we sort out which behaviors are necessary for police to maintain order and do their duty – as difficult as some of those decisions are – and which cross over into an abuse of power? Moreover, who should get to decide which is which?

Police officers enjoy what is called “qualified immunity” from lawsuits. This means that for conduct displayed while performing their jobs in a normal situation, police can’t be sued by citizens.

To be sued, police officers have to demonstrate willful, unreasonable conduct. If an officer’s actions are only negligent or the result of failure to exercise due care, they are not liable for a lawsuit.

Unfortunately, sometimes the types of behaviors that fall under the heading of negligent. It is shocking to the average person who doesn’t understand the dynamics of police work. And sometimes they are criminal actions.

Civil Rights

Until more recently in history, many police officers have also enjoyed a kind of protection by the system.

Prosecutors may have decided not to bring criminal charges against officers who should be facing criminal charges after an incident with civilians.

Civilians would also find it hard to sue officers and win any compensation.

The one way to receive a settlement against police misconduct would be if your civil rights were denied to you through the actions of the officer through false arrest, malicious prosecution, or excessive force.

The law often used to argue civil rights violations is called Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871.

However, to prove a civil rights violation, you must prove that the specific acts an officer prevented were legally protected actions. In other words, if the officer was preventing a crime at the time of the incident, there was no civil rights violation even if you believe he was using excessive force.

Conclusion

The advent of bodycams and videotaping of questioning has revealed some secrets of injustice. We may see more successful lawsuits brought against police misconduct. Additionally, qualified immunity may not cover as much police behavior as it has in the past.