Former Republican Rep. Justin Amash (L-Mich.) and progressive Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) have joined forces to introduce a bill in the House of Representatives that would eliminate the controversial doctrine of qualified immunity for police officers.
“As part of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, Congress allowed individuals to sue state and local officials, including police officers, who violate their rights,” a joint letter released by both representatives late Wednesday notes. “Starting in 1967, the Supreme Court began gutting that law by inventing the doctrine of qualified immunity.”
The original Civil Rights Act provided such redress via the federal statute now codified at 42 U.S.C. §1983known as a “civil action for deprivation of rights.” Initially passed as a court-based enforcement mechanism for provisions of the 14th Amendment, the statute was rarely subject to judicial scrutiny until the 1950s and 1960s.
In the case of Pierson v. Ray, the Supreme Court used the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement to severely limit 1983’s applicability.
Fifteen black and white Episcopal clergy attempted to desegregate “White Only” bus terminals in Jackson, Mississippi. and were arrested for breach of the peace and for refusing “to move on when ordered to do so by a police officer.” The protestors ultimately beat those charges and later sued the cops and the trial judge under 1983, alleging they were falsely arrested and imprisoned.
In an 8-1 decision, the doctrine of qualified immunity was created by “activist” judges on the typically liberal “Earl Warren Court.” Since then, the doctrine has grown and been embellished by subsequent court decisions which make it exceedingly difficult for plaintiffs to even bring police officers to trial for alleged constitutional violations.
“Under qualified immunity, police are immune from liability unless the person whose rights they violated can show that there is a previous case in the same jurisdiction, involving the exact same facts, in which a court deemed the actions to be a constitutional violation,” Amash and Pressley said. “This rule has sharply narrowed the situations in which police can be held liable–even for truly heinous rights violations–and it creates a disincentive to bringing cases in the first place.”