The Institute for Justice’s Project on Immunity and Accountability is devoted to a simple idea: If we the people must follow the law, our government must follow the Constitution.

But a tangled web of legal doctrines effectively places government workers above the law by making it nearly impossible for individuals to hold them accountable for violations of constitutional rights. Outside of narrow exceptions, these doctrines give all those employed by the government—police, mayors, school officials, IRS agents, you name it—immunity from lawsuits, even if they act in bad faith.

Since the only way to enforce the Constitution is through courts, these doctrines make the Constitution an empty promise by firmly shutting the courthouse doors. But the Constitution is a promise meant to be kept. Those who take an oath to uphold it should be required to keep it. If they don’t, they should be held accountable for their actions.

To that end, IJ is dedicated to knocking down barriers to the enforcement of our nation’s most fundamental law. Never forget that the Constitution’s protections for private property, free speech, economic liberty, and other rights are only meaningful if they are enforceable.

Immunity Doctrines Let Government Workers Avoid Constitutional Accountability

At the Founding, it was uncontroversial that individuals could enforce their constitutional rights by suing government workers and recovering damages against them. The practice of dismissing constitutional claims on immunity grounds flies in the face of this history and is contrary to one of our most cherished legal principles: where there is a right, there must be a remedy.

But thanks to the modern Supreme Court, there are now multiple doctrines that shield government workers from accountability. Chief among them are qualified immunity, de facto federal immunity, municipal immunity, and prosecutorial immunity.

If any of these immunity doctrines apply, victims of government abuse are prevented from holding their abusers accountable in American courts.

Frequently Asked Questions About Ending Qualified Immunity

What is Qualified Immunity? How Does It Work? Read the Most Frequently Asked Questions about Qualified Immunity.

Read the FAQ
Alek Schott partnered with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to fight back against Bexar County deputies for illegally stopping him for a traffic violation that he didn’t commit, and then using the stop to detain him and search his truck in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights.

De Facto Federal Immunity

Aside from three very narrow circumstances, it’s impossible to sue federal agents who violate the Constitution.

Municipal Immunity

Thanks to the Supreme Court, cities, counties, and other lower-level government employers generally can’t be held accountable for the actions of their employees.

Prosecutorial Immunity

Under this doctrine, prosecutors cannot be sued for any actions related to their job as a prosecutor, no matter how egregious the behavior.

The Heck Bar

Police and prosecutors can bar civil rights lawsuits by getting victims of abuse to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit.

Judge-Made Immunities Erode Constitutional Rights

Judicial immunities are antithetical to the idea of judicial engagement. They often prevent or restrict courts from examining the actual circumstances surrounding a government worker’s actions. Judges frequently justify this judicial abdication by arguing that courtrooms will be clogged with a never-ending line of frivolous cases. But there are already a number of procedures available to courts and parties that allow for the weeding out of frivolous or insubstantial lawsuits, and studies have shown that judge-made immunities do not even serve the policy goals articulated to justify their creation. So, they fail in both theory and practice.

Finally, judge-made immunities hurt the most vulnerable among us: individuals who have already suffered harm and for whom damages are the only way to vindicate their constitutional rights. People who have the rare ability to file a lawsuit before the government violates their rights can generally get a fair hearing in court. But people whose rights have been violated in the past all too often fall into one of the courts’ accountability-free zones, leaving them with their rights violated and no remedy in sight. In other words, courts are generally open to plaintiffs who want to stop the government from violating the Constitution, but once the violation has occurred, judge-made immunities make it nearly impossible to hold government workers accountable.

Allowing government workers to escape accountability for unconstitutional conduct simply because it occurred in the past is an attempt to renege on this nation’s fundamental promises in the Constitution.

Learn More About IJ’s Efforts to Hold Government Officials Accountable

The Institute for Justice is dedicated to fighting judge-made rules that make it extremely difficult or impossible to hold government workers accountable for violations of constitutional rights. Our efforts include direct lawsuits against government workers, appellate friend-of-the-court briefs in support of individuals who suffered harms at the hands of government workers, legislative efforts at both the state and federal level, and outreach to members of the public who want to know more about the difficulties of holding government workers accountable.

We do all of this because of our fundamental belief that following the Constitution means being held accountable for violating it. The judge-made immunities that allow government workers to violate the Constitution without consequence have no place in our constitutional system.

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Economic Liberty | First Amendment | First Amendment Retaliation | Immunity and Accountability | Other Property Rights Abuses | Private Property

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