Justice in Public Safety Project

Five Times Police Used Qualified Immunity to Get Away with Misconduct and Violence

By John Guzman

Communications Associate - Police Accountability

Throughout the United States, law enforcement officers have stolen money and valuables, shot children, attempted to harm family pets, killed vulnerable people, and, worst of all, they have gotten away with it — all because of qualified immunity.

The doctrine of qualified immunity, which allows state and local officials to avoid personal consequences related to their professional interactions unless they violate “clearly established law,” has been repeatedly used by police officers to escape accountability and civil liability for engaging in violent and abusive acts against the public. In practice, this often means that, unless there’s a case with nearly identical facts on the record, these officials — including law enforcement — can flagrantly violate a person’s rights without being held personally responsible.

Proponents of qualified immunity continue to defend the doctrine, stating that police officers need qualified immunity to do their jobs. But this isn’t true, as New York City’s experience demonstrates: In 2021, limits to the qualified immunity doctrine essentially resulted in one of the police unions in the city directing officers to be certain they are actually following the law while they are on the job.

The reality is that, rather than serving as an effective professional tool, qualified immunity instead simply shields law enforcement from civil suits, which are often one of the only tools victims of police violence — who are disproportionately people of color — have to hold law enforcement accountable for their harmful actions.

And, of course, let’s also remember that defending qualified immunity means defending instances like this:

1.

Police Set a Suicidal Man on Fire

On July 10, 2017, Gabriel Eduardo Olivas poured gasoline over his body and threatened to kill himself.
After Olivas’ son called 911, three officers from the Arlington Police Department in Texas — who recognized that tasering Olivas would set him on fire and voiced this fact — tasered him anyway after seeing an object that allegedly appeared to be a lighter in Olivas’ hands.

The house burned down and Olivas sustained injuries on 85 percent of his body. He ultimately passed away, his life callously ended by the very police officers who were called to help him when he was vulnerable and in distress. Seeking accountability, Olivas’ family brought forth a lawsuit, but the officers were granted qualified immunity and the family received no justice or relief.

2.

Police Officer Shot a Child While Firing at a Non-Threatening Family Dog

In Georgia, on July 10, 2014, a Coffee County officer, in the process of trying to apprehend an individual who “wandered” into another family’s yard,  tried to shoot a non-threatening family dog in the vicinity of six children, including two kids under age three, but missed the shot. The dog retreated into the home. At no point was there anything to indicate this dog was threatening or bearing hostility towards anyone.

Officers then held the children at gunpoint and directed them to lay on the ground, an order with which the children complied. The dog once again approached officers, and an officer again attempted to shoot him, only to shoot a 10-year-old child instead. After the case went to court, the officer received qualified immunity.

3.

Officers Purportedly Stole Over $150,000 from Two Businessmen

In 2013, law enforcement officers in Fresno, California executed a search warrant during an illegal gambling investigation and purportedly stole $151,380 in cash and $125,000 in rare coins from two businessmen who owned an ATM company — yet were never charged with a crime. In a subsequent lawsuit, the court held that, since there was no clearly established law that found that officers violated the Fourth or Fourteenth Amendments when they steal property during the execution of a search warrant, the officers could not be successfully sued for their actions. Notably, the court sympathized with the businessmen, emphasizing that, if officers did admit to stealing their property, which they did not, it was morally reprehensible – but still did not violate the Constitution in a way that had been clearly established before. Accordingly, the officers were granted qualified immunity.

4.

Police Killed a Hospitalized Man When He Didn’t Return to His Room

On March 24, 2011, 34-year-old Johnny Leija was in his hospital room in Medill, Oklahoma after being diagnosed with severe pneumonia and dehydration. The critically ill man, clearly disoriented, shouted that he was “Superman” and “God” and that he believed medical personnel were trying to kill him. Hospital staff called law enforcement to assist them in administering an injection to calm Leija down. Three Marshall County law enforcement officers arrived and struggled with Leija, used a stun gun on him, and ultimately killed him. The officers received qualified immunity – a disturbing example of how even being sick, vulnerable, and in a hospital does not protect individuals from being killed by police.

5.

Police Awakened a Sleeping Man in His Car — and Killed Him When He Drove Away

On the evening of March 13, 2017, Luke Stewart was asleep in his lawfully parked vehicle in Euclid, Ohio, when Officers Louis Catalani and Matthew Rhodes approached him after receiving reports of a “creepy car.” Both officers knocked on Stewart’s window and said, “Hi.” When Stewart awoke, he moved to drive off. Officer Rhodes rapidly entered Stewart’s vehicle through the passenger side, struggled with him for control of the vehicle, and then punched Stewart three times.

Officer Rhodes then tasered Stewart, who did not defend himself, and subsequently beat Stewart with the taser. The car, which was going less than 25 miles per hour, stopped and started multiple times. At one point, when the car was stopped and Stewart revved the engine, Officer Rhodes shot the man five times.  

Notably, neither officer ever identified themselves as law enforcement. Officer Catalani’s dashboard camera was also not activated, despite departmental policy requiring activation. And, most critically, the officers did not possess any facts indicating that a crime was taking place when they approached Stewart’s car. The officers were granted qualified immunity.

These harrowing examples offer just a snapshot of the type of conduct law enforcement officers have gotten away with for decades. And they will continue to get away with it unless legislators end qualified immunity, or create ways around it, so that officers can finally be held personally liable for the lives and communities they destroy.

End Qualified Immunity

Ending qualified immunity means that law enforcement officers who break the law can be held personally accountable, and victims of police misconduct can receive justice. LDF is working to end qualified immunity through legislative advocacy and litigation.

The Changing Landscape of Policing

LDF has compiled an index of the efforts by states and cities to address police accountability and transform public safety.

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