What Is Qualified Immunity?

Qualified immunity is a court-created legal doctrine that lets police officers and other government officials get away with outrageous abuses. Under qualified immunity, government officials can violate your rights with impunity—so long as they do so in a way no one has done before. Qualified immunity has shielded police officers who sicced a dog on a surrendering suspect, destroyed an innocent woman’s home with tear gas grenades, shot a ten-year-old child while aiming at a friendly dog, stole over $200,000 while executing a search warrant, and much more—all because no other police officer had been sued for committing exactly the same abuses.

Qualified immunity means that government officials cannot be held accountable for violating the Constitution unless they violate a “clearly established” constitutional rule. In practice, that means that government officials can only be held liable if a federal court of appeals or the U.S. Supreme Court has already held that someone violated the Constitution by engaging in precisely the same conduct under precisely the same circumstances.

How precisely must the violation match? Officers were recently granted qualified immunity when they let their police dog attack a suspect who was seated with his hands raised because the court found that an earlier case in which police let loose their dog on a suspect who was lying down wasn’t a close enough match.

What We’re Doing to Make Government Officials Accountable

The Institute for Justice is dedicated to fighting judge-made rules that make it extremely difficult to hold government officials accountable for violations of constitutional rights. Our efforts include direct lawsuits against government officials, appellate friend-of-the-court briefs in support of individuals who suffered at the hands of government officials, and outreach to members of the public who want to know more about the difficulties of holding government officials accountable. We do all this because of our fundamental belief that following the Constitution means being held accountable for violating it. The judge-made rules that allow government officials to violate the Constitution without consequence have no place in our Constitutional republic.

With one case already headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, IJ is a leader in the fight to abolish qualified immunity and restore government accountability. Sign up for email updates on IJ’s work to protect all Americans from government abuse!