Three Senate progressives have introduced a bill that would end “qualified immunity” for police and other public officials, making it easier to hold them personally liable for wrongdoing on the job.
Under current law, a law enforcement officer can violate a citizen’s constitutional rights but, in practice, be spared from having to financially compensate their victim in all but the most egregious cases — indeed, only if another court has previously, and explicitly, defined the exact same chain of events as illegal abuse.
For example, in February a US federal court ruled that a prison guard who pepper sprayed an inmate “for no reason” enjoyed qualified immunity by virtue of the fact that it is not “beyond debate” that the assault was unconstitutional, as Prison Legal News reported.
“Recent events demonstrate the urgent need for Congress to stand up for the rule of law and abolish qualified immunity,” David Cole, national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said after the Supreme Court recently declined to do so itself. “We have seen the deadly consequences play out on the streets, and Black Americans have largely paid the price.
The Ending Qualified Immunity Act answers that call and, in the unlikely event it is passed, would do what its name suggests: end this de facto impunity.
“Qualified immunity makes it almost impossible for a victim of excessive force by a police officer to hold that officer accountable in a court of law,” Sen. Ed Markey, a Massachussetts Democrat who introduced the bill, said in a statement. “That must end.”
Specifically, the bill would make clear that the doctrine does not extend to public officials who violate civil rights.
“This is not a radical idea,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, a cosponsor, said in a statement. “Police officers must be held fully accountable for abuses they commit — no one is above the law.”
“Ending the racist violence that has stolen far too many Black lives must begin with accountability,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, another cosponsor, said in a statement. “For too long, qualified immunity has shielded police officers who hae engaged in unconstitutional and appalling conduct from being held accountable in court — it’s past time to end this doctrine.”
Companion legislation has been introduced in the House by Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a liberal Democrat, and Rep. Justin Amash, a libertarian Republican turned Independent.
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