States Can Reform Qualified Immunity on their Own
The death of George Floyd and resulting nationwide protests against police abuses have focused renewed attention on the legal doctrine of “qualified immunity,” which all too often enables law enforcement officials to escape liability for egregious violations of constitutional rights. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court recently refused to take any cases that might overturn or limit the dubious doctrine it itself created. Congress could potentially abolish or limit qualified immunity by adopting new legislation curbing it. But Senate Republicans say that such a move would be a “poison pill” and it’s not clear that GOP supporters of reform can gather enough votes to get it through this year.
The Supreme Court, Congress or both might yet revisit this issue in the future. But in the meantime, there is much that state governments can do without waiting for federal action. The vast majority of law enforcement operations—and law enforcement abuses—are conducted by state and local police. State governments can address their misdeeds without waiting for either the Supreme Court or Congress to act.
The state of Colorado recently passed a reform law that is a model of its kind, one that other states would do well to imitate. Jay Schweikert of the Cato Institute has a helpful description of the Colorado law and its advantages:
Colorado Governor Jared Polis has signed into law Senate Bill 20–217 (“SB-217”), otherwise known as the Law Enforcement Integrity and Accountability Act. SB-217 includes a range of major policing reforms… But perhaps most notably, the law ensures that police officers in Colorado will not be able to avoid liability for their misconduct due to the unlawful shield of qualified immunity.
While many are summarizing SB-217 as “ending qualified immunity” in Colorado, what the law formally does is permit individuals to bring claims against police officers who violate their constitutional rights under Colorado law. SB-217 is therefore a kind of “state analogue” to Section 1983, our main federal civil rights statute. Whereas Section 1983 creates a cause of action allowing individuals whose rights are violated under the federal Constitution to bring a lawsuit for damages in federal court, SB-217 allows individuals whose rights are violated under the state constitution to bring a lawsuit for damages in state court.
Colorado, like most states, has a bill of rights that largely mirrors the federal Constitution (and in some ways is even more protective) so this means that
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