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George Floyd's horrific death at the hands of Minneapolis police last year focused national attention on qualified immunity, the court-invented doctrine that can shield cops from federal civil rights lawsuits even for outrageous misconduct. Although the officers involved in Floyd's death face criminal charges, qualified immunity is so expansive that it could prevent his family from suing them.
As that reality sunk in, calls to restrict or abolish the doctrine intensified. While Republican opposition blocked reform at the federal level, Colorado and Connecticut passed legislation that made it easier to sue abusive police officers under state law. Since those reforms provide a preview of what might happen if Congress (or the Supreme Court) did something similar, a recent analysis mandated by Connecticut's law has important implications for the debate about qualified immunity.
The report concludes that Connecticut's reforms, which authorized lawsuits against officers who violate rights protected by the state constitution, are unlikely to have a noticeable impact on municipal insurance costs. While that might seem like an obscure detail, it goes to the heart of an argument deployed by defenders of qualified immunity. It also suggests that critics of the doctrine should temper their expectations about what can be accomplished by eliminating it.
Opponents of qualified immunity are citing the Connecticut report as evidence that fears about the consequences of eliminating it are overblown. "This disproves one of the main arguments against ending qualified immunity, which is that officers would then be personally responsible for damages, causing municipal insurance [premiums] to skyrocket," the Campaign to End Qualified Immunity says in a press release. But the report also casts doubt on the idea that reducing barriers to lawsuits by victims of police abuse will give officers and local governments a financial incentive to treat people better.
Section 41 of Connecticut's police accountability law says "no police officer, acting alone or in conspiracy with another, shall deprive any person or class of persons of the equal protection of the laws of this state, or of the equal privileges and immunities under the laws of this state, including, without limitation, the protections, privileges and immunities guaranteed under article first of the Constitution of the state." It adds that "any person" whose rights are violated by police "may bring a civil action for equitable relief or damages in the Superior Court."
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