Police immunity applied unevenly by U.S. courts

Video Credit: Reuters - Politics
Published on August 25, 2020 - Duration: 05:02s

Police immunity applied unevenly by U.S. courts

Outrage over the killing of George Floyd and incidents like it have shone a spotlight on the controversial legal doctrine called qualified immunity.

A Reuters investigation has found that U.S. courts vary widely in how they grant police immunity, as Jonah Green explains..


Police immunity applied unevenly by U.S. courts

[David Collie, saying:] “Don't nobody deserve what I'm going through.” David Collie was gunned down by police in Fort Worth, Texas in July 2016.

He was approached by two officers who had been searching the area for two suspects, wanted for stealing a pair of tennis shoes.

Collie pulled his hand out of his pocket and one of the officers fired.

[Police dispatch, saying:] “Bravo 4156… Have one black male hit, to the back.

Shots fired.” Five seconds elapsed from the cops first appearing to the shooting.

[Officer Barron, saying on bodycam:] “Open your legs for me.” A bullet severed Collie’s spine, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.

Since then, he has lived in nursing homes, unable to work, with bedsores and bouts of depression.

[Collie, saying:] “Wrapped up, caught up in a nightmare, man.

Caught up in a nightmare, that’s how I really feel, like, truly.” To many Americans, the outlines of Collie’s story have become terribly familiar, all the more since the death of George Floyd.

But the fate of Collie’s attempt at seeking justice has become familiar, too.

He had committed no crime.

But he didn’t receive any compensation, or his day in court - because of something called qualified immunity.

[Collie, saying:] “They covered up for you in a courtroom.

They snuck in a qualified immunity, still covering for you.

And then, at the same time, we’re going to give you a promotion.” It’s a legal term and for years, the words “qualified immunity” were rarely heard outside of legal circles.

Mass protests against racism and aggressive police tactics, though, have shone a spotlight on the immunity defense.

[Protester, saying:] “We need legislative change, we need policy change, there are some policies we need to take a look at – qualified immunity.” So what exactly is it?

Qualified immunity was created by the Supreme Court half a century ago to protect police from frivolous lawsuits.

Supporters say the doctrine is essential to allow officers to make quick decisions in dangerous situations.

Critics argue it allows cops to kill or injure others with impunity.

[White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, saying:] “In the Democrat bill, they talked about needing to reduce immunity to go after bad cops, but that would result in police pulling back.

So that is one thing that is a nonstarter.

[Reporter, saying:] "It's called a qualified immunity.

Is that a red line for the president?" [McEnany, saying:] "That's a nonstarter in the Democrat legislation." A Reuters analysis of hundreds of federal court cases about the use of excessive force reveals wide disparities in how qualified immunity plays out across the country.

If Collie had lived in California instead of Texas, for example, things might have turned out differently.

Take Benny Herrera.

The father-of-four was killed in a suburb of Los Angeles in 2011.

Like Collie, he had no gun on him when police approached him.

Like Collie, he was ordered to take his hands out of his pockets.

And like Collie, he was shot when he complied.

[Police officer, saying:] “Get down, get down, get down now!

Shots fired.” Herrera died in hospital.

His family fared better than Collie in the excessive force lawsuit they filed.

The courts denied the cop’s request for qualified immunity, the case was allowed to proceed, and the family eventually secured a $1.4 million settlement.

The regional disparities aren’t confined to these two cases, either.

Reuters looked at how often qualified immunity was granted in more than 500 cases among the various federal appeals courts.

These circuits in yellow tend to favor plaintiffs, granting cops immunity less than 50% of the time.

Those in blue tend to favor police, granting immunity more than 50% of the time.

Reuters also analyzed over 400 cases at the district court level – where lawsuits are actually filed and heard -- in Collie and Herrera’s respective states.

It found that officers in Texas are almost twice as likely to be granted immunity than in California.

Experts say the disparities are due to differing “judicial philosophies”.

Judges in some regions put more emphasis on police authority, others on individuals’ civil rights.

The Reuters findings add weight to the arguments for reform.

[Collie, saying:] “It made no sense to me, it made no sense to me.

I feel betrayed.

I feel abandoned, man.

And it hurt, it hurt.

I feel, I feel like... I just feel abandoned.” A broad coalition of politicians, lawyers, scholars and civil rights groups are clamoring for the Supreme Court to end or rein in qualified immunity.

As practiced, critics say, it too often denies justice to victims of police brutality.

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