Oct 18, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Supreme Court upholds qualified immunity for police officers

Supreme Court building

Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. Photo: Emily Elconin/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday issued two rulings for separate cases in Oklahoma and California upholding a legal doctrine known as qualified immunity, which has been used to shield officers from lawsuits alleging excessive force.

Why it matters: Revising or eliminating qualified immunity has been a focus of police reform efforts and would force officers accused of excessive force to personally face civil penalties.

Of note: "The doctrine of qualified immunity shields officers from civil liability so long as their conduct 'does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known,'" the justices wrote in the Oklahoma ruling.

State of play: In both cases, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the accused police officers and defended their right to qualified immunity.

  • In one ruling, the court overturned a lower court's decision to allow a trial to proceed against officers Josh Girdner and Brandon Vick over the 2016 fatal shooting of a man brandishing a hammer in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, per Reuters.
  • In the other, the court overturned a lower court's denial of a request for qualified immunity for police officer Daniel Rivas-Villegas, accused in a lawsuit of using excessive force when handcuffing a suspect in Union City, California, in 2016, Reuters reported.
  • Both rulings were decided without oral arguments and with no public dissent among the justices, according to Reuters.

The bottom line: "These are not the actions of a Court that is likely to end or seriously reform qualified immunity. Reform is going to have to come from elsewhere," Chris Kemmitt, deputy director of litigation for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, tweeted.

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