Court Hawk
NBC News

Supreme Court Justices Reviewing “Qualified Immunity” in Wake of George Floyd Death

The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, including Derek Chauvin, sparked a massive protest movement. In cities across the US, protesters continue to march for justice. Chauvin is now facing down second-degree murder charges. Three officers that stood by as he pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for eight minutes have been charged with aiding and abetting murder.

What happens next is ironic. Just after the upsetting news of Floyd’s death and subsequent protests, too. The Supreme Court may return to the issue of qualified immunity on Thursday. The principle of qualified immunity is referred to by some legal scholars as the cornerstone of America’s lack of accountability for police. Here’s what you need to know.

What is Qualified Immunity?

In short, qualified immunity is a Supreme Court doctrine that largely protects law enforcement from civil suits. This often applies even when the citizens’ rights have been violated. Needless to say, this has caused some problems for police and public relations. Cases of police brutality are difficult to prosecute, due in some part to qualified immunity.

In theory, qualified immunity means that citizens can only sue public officials when their rights are violated in a way that clearly breaks a pre-defined law. The exact wording is that the official must have violated rights given by “clearly established law”. To explain why this is an issue, let’s look at the case of George Floyd.

George Floyd died after Derek Chauvin pinned him to the ground for eight minutes in Minneapolis. But, there is no clearly established law saying officers can’t use neck pins on people in Minneapolis. So, qualified immunity could protect Chauvin in this case.

Why is the Court Reconsidering it?

By happenstance, the court may be reviewing cases soon that deal with qualified immunity. Some eight cases are before the court that could be covered by qualified immunity. In an effort to streamline litigation, the court may dismiss them due to qualified immunity. They could, instead, take up some or all of them.

Actions undertaken by the court could set a precedence that would alter the way civil rights suits work in the US. If the courts move to uphold qualified immunity, it’s unlikely that even protests will bring about police accountability.

However, should the court move to strike down the restrictive statute, recent civil unrest could be pushing the country towards justice. Many legal experts believe that the cases must be weighing heavily on the minds of the justices as the protests unfold.