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Supreme Court Poised To Expand Police Immunity

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October 24, 2021

There appears to be support among some U.S. Supreme Court Justices to significantly expand police officers’ immunity from federal civil rights lawsuits. In an opinion on Oct. 18 the Court held that a California police officer is immune from a lawsuit alleging that he used excessive force while arresting an armed suspect. The opinion, that he “did not violate clearly established law” when he briefly used his knee to hold down a suspect who was armed with a knife and had threatened his girlfriend and her two children, was routine, but two sentences alarmed civil rights advocates: “Even assuming that Circuit precedent can clearly establish law” and “even assuming that controlling Circuit precedent clearly establishes law.” Both imply uncertainty as to whether a circuit court decision is sufficient to overcome qualified immunity. Currently, these plaintiffs can rely on multiple legal authorities, including circuit court precedents, to show that a particular right is “clearly established.” This ruling opens the door to a new protocol, where plaintiffs alleging police violence can no longer rely on appellate court decisions to breach an officer’s partial immunity to lawsuits. The opinion was unsigned, so it remains unknown who inserted the two sentences.

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