A bright light has been on police misconduct in recent months. You may have heard the term “qualified immunity” during these conversations, but it can be difficult to understand what it means in a legal sense.

What is qualified immunity?

In Georgia, police officers have “qualified immunity.” Defined by Cornell Law School, qualified immunity “protects a government official from lawsuits alleging that the official violated a plaintiff’s rights, only allowing suits where officials violate a ‘clearly established’ statutory or constitutional right.” It is meant to protect officials from “harassment, distraction and liability” that keeps them from doing their job.

Qualified immunity is not meant to deter justice or give a free pass to police officers, though critics of the law see it functioning as such. It often focuses on how objectively reasonable the action of the officer was. Qualified immunity is typically utilized early in a trial because it is meant to keep government officials from participating in unnecessary legal action.

How does qualified immunity affect misconduct cases?

While this protection has its purpose, critics of qualified immunity believe that in some cases it can shield police officers from taking responsibility for misconduct. It often requires the victims and loved ones of victims of police misconduct to prove the action.

The courts will typically look at the actions of the law enforcement officer and consider if they were objectively reasonable, including if:

  • There was violation of a constitutional right
  • That right was clear at the time of the incident

Because plaintiffs may need to prove this violation of their rights, including the right to be free of excessive police force, it can be helpful to have evidence of the action. Though it is not always possible to get, video recording and eyewitnesses may support a police misconduct case.

While taking legal action against an individual police officer may be more difficult because of qualified immunity, victims of misconduct may be able to sue for monetary damages or direct legal action towards the larger governmental body.