(Reuters) – Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Freddie Gray. Their names are seared into Americans’ memories, egregious examples of lethal police violence that stirred protests and prompted big payouts to the victims’ families.
FILE PHOTO: A police officer is mostly alone on the plaza in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Washington, U.S., April 15, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
But for every killing or injury that grabs national attention, there are hundreds of others that do not.
In these, police departments face far less public pressure to pay damages, and officers are even less likely to be disciplined. That leaves one option for victims or their families to seek justice: sue the cops for civil rights violations under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
A new Reuters investigation, however, has found that more often than not, these last-ditch excessive force lawsuits fail to win victims any redress – all because of a little-known legal defense called qualified immunity.
This 50-year-old creation of the U.S. Supreme Court is meant to protect government employees from frivolous litigation. In recent years, though, it has become a highly effective shield in thousands of lawsuits seeking to hold cops accountable for using excessive force.
Here are six takeaways from our investigation:
– Even as cellphone video taken by bystanders has turned a national spotlight on extreme police tactics, the qualified immunity doctrine – painstakingly erected over the years by the U.S. Supreme Court – is making it easier for officers to kill or injure civilians with impunity.
– The Supreme Court’s decisions have had far-reaching effects that tilt the scales in favor of officers. Reuters conducted the first-ever comprehensive review of hundreds of appeals filed in excessive force cases in federal courts. We found that police won 56% of cases in which they claimed qualified immunity from 2017 through 2019. That’s up sharply from the three prior years, when they won 43% of the time.
– Even when U.S. courts confirm cops violated a victim’s civil rights, police can still escape liability. That’s because the Supreme Court has continually raised the bar for challenges to the qualified immunity defense. Reuters found dozens of examples of this.
– Cops win these cases so often that plaintiffs’ lawyers say they are reluctant to take on clients harmed in violent encounters with police.
– A growing chorus, spanning the political spectrum, is calling for the Supreme Court to make changes. Among the critics are two of the court’s own justices: the liberal Sonia Sotomayor and the conservative Clarence Thomas. Sotomayor, in a 2018 dissent, wrote that the court’s decision favoring cops sends a dangerous signal: “They can shoot first and think later, and it tells the public that palpably unreasonable conduct will go unpunished.”
– The high court is now indicating it is aware of the outcry over qualified immunity. Multiple appeals backed by the doctrine’s critics have piled up before the Supreme Court. The justices are scheduled to discuss privately as soon as May 15 which, if any, of 11 such cases they could hear later this year.
Editing by John Blanton and Janet Roberts