The murder of George Floyd—during last year’s Memorial Day weekend—focused this country’s attention on a controversial legal doctrine called qualified immunity. This doctrine is used in civil lawsuits to shield government workers, including police, from having to pay damages for violations of constitutional rights. It’s true that much has been said about the doctrine. But what is generally not known is that some courts extend qualified immunity to cities and counties that hire and train the police. This is an unjustified extension of qualified immunity, which violates the Supreme Court’s precedent. This Memorial Day holiday, the high court should take up the issue and course correct.
The case knocking on the Supreme Court’s door involves Luke Stewart, a 23-year-old Black man shot and killed by police more than four years ago. Luke was parked by his friend’s house, sleeping inside his car, because the friend was apparently not at home. A resident, suspicious of an idle car on her street, called the police. Startled when two officers knocked on his door, Luke began to drive. One officer hopped into the passenger seat to stop Luke. Less than a minute later, the officer shot Stewart multiple times in the torso, even though Luke had not threatened the officer or tried to fight him.
Luke’s mother sued the officer for killing his son. She also sued the City of Euclid, Ohio, for failing to properly train the officer. After all, there was plenty of evidence that the city did not take its training responsibility seriously. The training program included Chris Rock’s comedy sketch called “How Not To Get Your Ass Kicked By The Police!” One of the tips: “get a white friend.”
Last August, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided that Stewart’s rights may have been violated, but Stewart’s family can’t sue—neither the officer nor the city— because the officer had qualified immunity. The shocking part here is that the city got the officer’s qualified immunity protection too, despite the Supreme Court’s precedent specifically stating that municipalities cannot take advantage of the doctrine. Apparently, the Sixth Circuit reasoned that when poor training is at issue, the qualified-immunity protection that the officer gets attaches to the municipality.
This leads to absurd results, because the city’s accountability for an unconstitutional training program is not determined on its own accord but depends on what the officer had actually done.
Driving the point home, a different panel of the 6th Circuit recognized in another case that—based on the very same training program—the city could have to answer for excessive-force violations. But Stewart’s family is denied the same opportunity to vindicate his rights.
Why? Because, in the other case, police officers used pepper spray and a Taser on a person who was getting out of a car, whereas in Stewart’s case, a police officer shot him five times while inside the car Stewart was driving. Prior cases had already declared unconstitutional the officers’ use of pepper spray and a Taser, so qualified immunity did not shield the officers and thus did not attach to the municipality. But no 6th Circuit case had specified that an officer offends a driver’s constitutional rights by shooting him multiple times at point-blank range from the passenger seat. Thus, qualified immunity applied and Mary Stewart could not sue for the harm caused by the very same program at issue in the other case.
The consequences of the 6th Circuit’s decision are troubling. As we wrote in our amicus brief in support of certiorari, extending qualified immunity to municipalities effectively cuts off the only remaining avenue citizens have to hold governments accountable when their employees violate civil rights. That’s because other legal doctrines already shield government actors from liability for rights violations. For example, states are cloaked with sovereign immunity, and individuals enjoy qualified immunity.
As a result, the 6th Circuit’s decision leaves Stewart’s mother with no defendant to sue for the violation of his rights; the government and its officers get off scot-free for causing Stewart’s death. Not only that, but by granting qualified immunity to local governments, the 6th Circuit’s decision eliminates the incentive for governments to avoid violating individuals’ rights in the future.
Ultimately, if civil rights are not enforceable, they don’t protect Americans from government abuse. The U.S. Supreme Court should step in to say so and provide Stewart’s mother her day in court.