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Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin faces murder and manslaughter charges for kneeling on George Floyd's neck until he stopped breathing. But even if Chauvin is convicted, Floyd's family may not be able to pursue claims under a federal statute that authorizes lawsuits against government officials who violate people's constitutional rights.
The uncertain prospects for the lawsuit Floyd's relatives plan to file underlines the unjust and irrational consequences of qualified immunity, a doctrine that shields police from liability for outrageous conduct when the rights they violated were not "clearly established" at the time. Congress should seize the opportunity created by Floyd's May 25 death and the nationwide protests it provoked to abolish that doctrine, which the Supreme Court unlawfully grafted onto the Civil Rights Act of 1871.
Was it "clearly established" on May 25 that kneeling on a prone, handcuffed arrestee's neck for nearly nine minutes violated his Fourth Amendment rights? The issue is surprisingly unsettled in the 8th Circuit, which includes Minnesota.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit blocked civil rights claims in two recent cases with broadly similar facts: handcuffed detainees who died after being restrained face down by several officers. Unlike those detainees, Floyd was not actively resisting at the time of his death, except to repeatedly complain that he could not breathe.
While that distinction could make a difference in the constitutional analysis, we can't be sure. Even if the 8th Circuit concluded that Chauvin's actions were unconstitutional, it could still decide the law on that point was not clear enough at the time of Floyd's arrest, meaning Chauvin would receive qualified immunity.
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