Qualified immunity is a type of immunity used to shield government officials from liability for actions taken in the line of duty, so long as the actions did not violate rights clearly defined by established law. It is a defense available to public officials, both state and federal, including law enforcement officers. Qualified immunity was created by the Supreme Court to focus trials on the objective reasonableness of the contested action of public officials, rather than the subjective intent of that official at the time of the action.
One of the goals of qualified immunity is to protect government officials, including law enforcement agents, from frivolous lawsuits stemming from necessary actions performed as part of their work. It allows these officials to execute their duties without the fear of being sued by individuals who may suffer harm as a result.
The key to the qualified immunity defense is whether the contested action was reasonable. In other words, the court must decide if a reasonable person would have known that their actions violated a clearly established law. Because qualified immunity removes the burden of determining the subjective state of the government official, the prosecution no longer must prove malice on the part of the defendant.
Since the establishment of qualified immunity as a defense, the Supreme Court has been supportive of its use by police officers to defend actions taken in dangerous and intense situations. The court has also recognized the right of public officials to immediate appeal when a trial court judge issues a denial of their qualified immunity defense. An immediate appeal spares the defendant from the burden and expense of protracted discovery and trial.
There are numerous examples of rulings by the court that favor law enforcement. In the 1986 decision Malley v. Briggs, the court wrote that qualified immunity protects “all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law”.
A year later, in Anderson v. Creighton, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a federal law enforcement officer who thought he had probable cause to conduct a search without a warrant, but was mistaken, and used qualified immunity as his defense when he was sued for damages under the Fourth Amendment. Here, the court said that it had already recognized that it is inevitable that law enforcement officers will reasonably and mistakenly conclude that probable cause is present when making searches, and that officers should not be held personally liable for them.
The court has also affirmed use of the qualified immunity in multiple cases concerning the use of deadly force by police officers; thus making it clear that defendants whose attorneys have the knowledge and experience to make use of the qualified immunity defense, where applicable, will have a distinct advantage.
For information on how our governmental entity representation and civil rights defense practice can help you, call MacMain, Connell & Leinhauser at 484-318-7106 or contact us online. With our office in West Chester, Pennsylvania, our attorneys serve clients throughout Chester County and Philadelphia.