LDF’s Qualified Immunity Working Group advocates for the end of qualified immunity through litigation and public advocacy. The Group litigates civil rights cases in the federal courts of appeals and the United States Supreme Court to limit the doctrine’s reach. It does so on behalf of indigent clients without counsel or in partnership with trial attorneys seeking experienced appellate counsel. Recently, the Group has, in important victories, represented individuals subjected to serious physical abuse by police officers in the Seventh, Ninth and Tenth Circuits and a student strip-searched by school officials in the Eleventh Circuit.
The Group also routinely publishes articles and speaks about the injustices that result from qualified immunity, highlighting changes to the legal and legislative landscape in order to continue to raise public awareness about the doctrine.
If you would like to refer a case to LDF’s Qualified Immunity Working Group, please contact email@example.com. For media inquiries, please contact our communications team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The doctrine of qualified immunity allows state and local officials to avoid personal consequences related to their professional interactions unless they violate “clearly established law” and 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 can violate a person’s rights without being held personally responsible for their actions.
We’ve compiled answers to frequently asked questions about qualified immunity.
Feat. Chris Kemmitt, LDF Deputy Director of Litigation
Feat. Mahogone Reed, Former LDF John Payton Appellate and Supreme Court Advocacy Fellow
Feat. Chris Kemmitt, LDF Deputy Director of Litigation
USA Today - September 2022
By Kevin Jason, LDF Assistant Counsel and Georgina Yeomans, LDF Assistant Counsel
By Chris Kemmitt, LDF Deputy Director of Litigation and Kevin Jason, LDF Assistant Counsel
By Chris Kemmitt, LDF Deputy Director of Litigation and Georgina Yeomans, LDF Assistant Counsel
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 myths that are used to justify qualified immunity are numerous and egregious, and the dangers are clear. We debunk these myths and show QI’s detrimental impacts, particularly on communities of color, and the hazard posed to public safety.
In December 2017, Eric Tyler Vette was punched, hit in the face with a dog chain, and bitten by a police dog after he was apprehended by Montrose County, Colorado police. After Mr. Vette filed a complaint against the officers, Sergeant Sanders filed his own affidavit and claimed qualified immunity. The district court denied Sergeant Sanders claim to qualified immunity twice, stating that his actions were a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment. In March, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit issued a decision, affirming the denial of qualified immunity and permitting Mr. Vette’s civil rights claims to proceed. LDF and Rights Behind Bars represented Mr. Vette on his appeal.
In July 2018, Joseph Ferguson was tased by Officer McDonough of the Kenosha Police Department. Mr. Ferguson had not actively resisted but Officer McDonough used enough force that Mr. Ferguson’s jacket came off and his pants fell to the ground. He was tased while standing in the street with his hands up wearing only his boxers. Mr. Ferguson filed a lawsuit alleging his civil rights were violated. Officer McDonough claimed qualified immunity as a defense, but in a September 2021 decision, the court dismissed the officer’s appeal and qualified immunity defense. Along with Rights Behind Bars, and Mr. Ferguson’s court-appointed trial counsel, David Lang, LDF represents Mr. Ferguson before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.
In August 2017, T.R., a fourteen-year-old student at Sulligent High School in Alabama, was removed from class and forcibly strip-searched twice by two school officials who incorrectly suspected that T.R. had drugs somewhere on her person. T.R. had no drugs. Represented by the Maxwell & Tillman Law Firm, T.R. and her mother Porsha Brock filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama. The District Court determined that the school officials were entitled to qualified immunity. LDF partnered with Maxwell & Tillman to represent T.R. on appeal. LDF’s brief argued that the district court had improperly distinguished materially analogous precedent from the Supreme Court and the Eleventh Circuit. The Eleventh Circuit agreed on all counts. As the Court explained, the officials’ erroneous hunch could not justify the grave intrusion of a single strip search, much less two strip searches.
Mr. Getzen was sitting on the bathroom floor of the apartment where he was staying. Mr. Getzen was unarmed and was not suspected of any serious crime. Deputy Long and his partner entered the bathroom with weapons drawn and proceeded to tase Mr. Getzen in dart mode and then in stun gun mode and then pepper sprayed him twice. Deputy Long dragged him out of the bathroom by his feet, injuring Mr. Getzen’s head by knocking it on a doorframe along the way. Deputy Long’s use of pepper spray and taser deployments blinded Mr. Getzen for 16 hours and left him with breathing problems and a heart injury. Mr. Getzen filed a pro se lawsuit against Deputy Long, alleging a violation of his right to be free from excessive force. The district court denied Deputy Long qualified immunity, holding that there was extensive case law prohibiting the use of such force on a passive individual. Deputy Long appealed the ruling. Mr. Getzen retained Rights Behind Bars and LDF for his appeal.
Mr. Briceno was helping his mobility-impaired friend cross the street when Officer Williams of the San Diego Police Department got out of his car and began issuing commands. Mr. Briceno provided his ID, but Officer Williams pushed, grabbed, and punched Mr. Briceno, forcing him to flee out of concern for his own safety. Officer Williams chased Mr. Briceno and tackled him to the ground and continued punching him until he lost consciousness. Mr. Briceno filed a lawsuit alleging that Officer Williams used excessive force. The District Court held that Officer Williams was entitled to qualified immunity for tackling Mr. Briceno, but not for punching him. LDF and Rights Behind Bars represent Mr. Briceno on appeal. The 9th Circuit ruled in LDF’s favor, affirming the district court’s denial of qualified immunity to Officer Blake Williams of the San Diego Police Department and permitting Marcus Briceno’s civil rights claims to proceed to trial.
On July 28, 2016, Shase Howse was on his front porch attempting to unlock his door when a man, who unbeknownst to Mr. Howse was a detective in the Cleveland Police Department, passed by in an unmarked car and repeatedly asked Mr. Howse if this was his house. Mr. Howse said yes multiple times. The detective, Brian Middaugh, then exited his car and told him to put his hands above his head as he was under arrest. Mr. Howse protested and told him that this was his home but Detective Middaugh threw him to the ground and then punched him in the neck. Mr. Howse remained non-violent and never attempted to hit Detective Middaugh but was arrested and charged with assault and battery of a police officer. He was forced to spend three days in jail until the charges were dismissed. Mr. Howse filed a lawsuit, alleging his constitutional rights were violated. A federal district court granted Detective Middaugh qualified immunity. , LDF and co-counsel, attorney James Hardiman, filed a petition for rehearing en banc in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and a petition for certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court.