Congressman Justin Amash (I-Mich.) is introducing legislation that will remove a law called “qualified immunity,” which makes it difficult to prosecute a government official for violating a citizen’s rights.
Amash sent out a letter to his colleagues in which he introduced the Ending Qualifiied Immunity Act, asking his fellow congress members to sign onto his bill.
“This week, I am introducing the Ending Qualified Immunity Act to eliminate qualified immunity and restore Americans’ ability to obtain relief when police officers violate their constitutionally secured rights,” he wrote.
Under qualified immunity, police are immune from legal responsibility unless the person whose rights they violated can show that there is a previous case in the same area, involving the same facts, where a judge ruled the actions to be a in violation of the constitution.
George Floyd was killed by police On May 25 in Minneapolis. Two officers pinned and handcuffed Floyd on a city street, one stood around the scene and a fourth held is knee on Floyd’s neck well after Floyd lost consciousness. He has since been fired along with the other three officers, and has been arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.
Floyd’s family may have to get beyond the legal doctrine of “qualified immunity” that protects police and other government officials from accountability for their illegal and unconstitutional acts.
According to Cornell Law, The Supreme Court created qualified immunity in 1982 to achieve two outcomes; “the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.”
This rule has significantly narrowed the situations in which police can be held liable even when the violation by the officer is obvious.
Civil rights lawyer Lee Merritt recently addressed some of the key actions that the legal and civil community are taking in response to the death of Floyd. Merritt is currently representing Ahmaud Arbery, an African American man who was shot and killed during an altercation with two armed men while out jogging. One of the men was formerly a police officer.
“We are demanding that our lawmakers and congressional decision makers craft legislation specifically designed to deal with the crisis—the crisis of lack of accountability and excessive force in American policing,” said Lee Merritt.
Civil rights lawyers like Merritt and criminal justice advocates are calling for changes national use-of-force standards and limiting the power of police unions and changes to the issue of qualified immunity which is currently before the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court considered 13 different petitions for cases involving qualified immunity at a conference hearing May 28. The Court could take up cases involving this issue in the near future.
An opponent of the doctrine, Clark Neily of the Cato Institute, said that Floyd’s death must be a catalyst for police accountability.
“With Minneapolis burning, it’s important to know who’s responsible. A large measure of blame goes to SCOTUS, which has imposed on us a judicially invented policy of near-zero accountability for law enforcement that it steadfastly refuses to reconsider,” wrote Neily.
“This pattern continues because police are legally, politically, and culturally insulated from consequences for violating the rights of the people whom they have sworn to serve. That must change so that these incidents of brutality stop happening,” Amash added.
“My bill, the Ending Qualified Immunity Act, does this by explicitly noting in the statute that the elements of qualified immunity outlined by the Supreme Court are not a defense to liability,” Amash said.