Qualified immunity is a judicial doctrine that shields public officials, like police officers, from liability when they break the law. Cato’s Project on Criminal Justice chose to make the elimination of qualified immunity one of its top priorities nearly three years ago for the simple reason that civil society is impossible without a well‐functioning criminal justice system.
The doctrine was invented by the Supreme Court in the 1960s, with no basis statutory text, legislative intent, or sound public policy. While established civil rights laws direct that any government official who violates someone’s constitutional rights “shall be liable” to the person they injured, the Supreme Court’s muddling of the law with qualified immunity has allowed police officers to avoid responsibility. Law enforcement officials are now routinely excused from bad behavior—even actions that cause harm or death to innocent victims, and even when they knowingly violate a person’s rights.
Either the Supreme Court or Congress could end qualified immunity, and it would be a major victory for accountability.