Plainly Incompetent: How Qualified Immunity Became an Exculpatory Doctrine of Police Excessive Force

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Recent instances of law enforcement killing community members and ensuing social movements have increased public attention on the issue of police use of force and the lack of officer accountability. Qualified immunity has been central to this discussion because the doctrine is often used to shield officers from civil lawsuits when plaintiffs bring constitutional tort claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
The traditional understanding of qualified immunity as applied to excessive force cases is that it tracks the history of the doctrine itself. It is widely accepted that the doctrine began to thwart excessive force claims against police right after it emerged for the first time in 1967 with Pierson v. Ray—a false arrest case that created a subjective good faith defense for some § 1983 claims. Most assume this influence continued as qualified immunity took on its modern form in 1982 with Harlow v. Fitzgerald—an executive privileges case that created an objective qualified immunity test relative to clearly established law. With this standard narrative, it is largely thought that these early cases on qualified immunity in the contexts of false arrests and executive branch privileges naturally, immediately, and seamlessly became a significant constraint on plaintiffs’ § 1983 excessive force claims against police officers.

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