A year following the tragic deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and after a summer that saw a heightened number of police misconduct cases, New York City’s City Council has passed a bill limiting qualified immunity, which is a legal doctrine that has long provided police officers with legal protection from charges of misconduct.
For decades, police officers throughout the country have been able to utilize an esoteric legal doctrine referred to as ‘qualified immunity’ to protect themselves from lawsuits initiated by many of the people they had arrested. Qualified immunity refers to the practice of police abuse victims not being able to pursue civil lawsuits against government officials who are performing official duties unless the officer has clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.
Following the death of Mr. Floyd, however, law enforcement departments throughout the country have given substantial thought to ending the doctrine on both local and federal levels.
The Legislative Vote
With this most recent vote, New York City has become the largest jurisdiction to limit the ability of officers to utilize this defense. Other states like Colorado and Connecticut have also ruled against qualified immunity.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has already communicated during a news conference that he supports the measure and will not veto it. The Councilman who sponsored the bill has also commented that this change prevents the police office from entering the courtroom and stating that the office is immune from the plaintiff’s legal action. Instead, this change gives the people the right to protect their fundamental rights to be free of abuse at the hands of the government.
The bill is just one of several police reform bills that were recently passed by the City Council. Lawmakers have also granted final approval to Mayor de Blasio’s $72 million plan for improving both police accountability and practices. Governor Cuomo has requested that all jurisdictions in the state comply with these changes before April 1st.
While the legislative package includes various changes, each of them have an impact on the role that law enforcement plays in New York. For example, another bill gives the Civil Complaint Review Board, which examines misconduct, the power and staff to investigate the possibility of racial bias in policing. Another measure requires the police to collect data on car stops, which includes information about the people arrested.
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The Centerpiece of the New Legislation – Police Misconduct
The centerpiece of the new legislation is the measure designed to make it more difficult for law enforcement officers to utilize qualified immunity to shield themselves from lawsuits. This regulation was passed by a vote of 37 to 11.
The bill functions by establishing a local right, which is the protection against unreasonable searches as well as protection against excessive force. The measure also states that law enforcement officers cannot use the qualified immunity defense. The bill permits individuals to initiate legal action against the police for damages under local law instead of under federal or state statutes.
The origins of the qualified immunity doctrine date back to the 1960s, when courts found that the officers who arrested clergy members for using segregated facilities in a Mississippi bus terminal were not liable if they acted in good faith and had probable cause under a statute that they viewed as valid.
Over the years, the qualified immunity defense has expanded. The regulation now requires plaintiffs to establish that officers violated a constitutional right that was not “clearly established” in a previous case. This marks a high hurdle that is often impossible to overcome and which frequently permits law enforcement officers to avoid accountability for their actions.
City Council researchers have found that least 180 lawsuits over the last three years in which qualified immunity or its equivalent was invoked resulted in a judge approving its use in about 100 cases.
This new regulation comes after recent rulings by the United States Supreme Court have introduced concerns that the country’s highest court might roll back the doctrine.
Response to the Bills
The decision to remove qualified immunity in New York has been met with both praise and criticism. The Cato Institute called for the abolishment of the qualified immunity defense in a scathing 2020 report. The National Basketball Players Association has also voiced support for the bill. A staff attorney with the Prisoners’ Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society has also commented that qualified immunity permits a “culture of immunity” to “exist and fester” within the police department and has called for lawmakers in other states to pass similar legislation.
Not everyone, however, supports the bill. Opponents of the measurement have argued that the rule was a necessary protection that allowed police offices to effectively perform their jobs. By ending qualified immunity, these opponents argue that more and more people will be precluded from entering the police force.
The Police Benevolent Association has opposed the legislation and stated that the bill will effectively chill the operations of law enforcement. By removing long-standing safeguards protecting police officers, the bill might lead officers to refrain from acting when citizens require their help, out of fear of facing legal action.
Mayor de Blasio stated that while he had concerns with the legislation in the past, he now felt that the City Council’s measure was aligned with federal legislation, which is referred to as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and limits qualified immunity as a defense.
Other experts on policing have expressed doubt about whether the measure would be effective at limiting police misbehavior. A political scientist at John Jay College has commented that people want to see a completely new system in which it is not easy to violate people’s civil rights. Others have echoed the perspective that this bill is the beginning rather than the end of police reform in the city.
Speak With a Compassionate Police Misconduct Lawyer
If you or your loved one has been harmed by police misconduct, you should not hesitate to contact an experienced attorney. Contact The Law Office of Cohen and Jaffe LLP today to schedule a free case evaluation.