Police and other authorities have great power over the communities they serve. They have the ability to stop vehicles, conduct searches and take other measures deemed appropriate to remove those who could be a threat to members of the community. Although many officers use this power honorably, there are a few who do not. This has led to questions about how we hold those who abuse the power accountable for their actions.
The abuses can lead to serious questions. Can victims hold officers accountable if suspects die while in their custody? This question has received media attention with police brutality cases in recent months, but the full reach can extend even beyond these extreme examples. What if an officer pockets expensive collectible coins while executing a search warrant?
Ultimately, accountability often hinges on the doctrine of qualified immunity. This doctrine is not one designed by Congress, but instead put together by the courts. As such, legal scholars have called on the Supreme Court to review its application and provide guidance. It looks like the Supreme Court may take on the issue this term. It currently has six major cases for consideration.
Why is qualified immunity such a big deal?
This doctrine makes it difficult to hold enforcement officers accountable when they injure others. Essentially, in order to beat qualified immunity, an injured party must find another case with exactly the same fact pattern where the victim won to show that what the officer did was wrong.
In one case, Baxter v. Bracey, the victim thought they had found such a case. In this case, the victim was sitting on the ground with his hands up, surrendering to officers. The officers still released a police dog to attack the man. The man found another case, but the officers challenged that it was not sufficient because in that case the man was laying down while in this one, he was sitting. It was enough of a difference for the court to rule in their favor. This is one of the cases the Supreme Court is considering.
Will it change?
If the Supreme Court does not provide guidance, Congress may. Lawmakers have the power to address this issue. We will watch this issue and provide updates, hopefully including increased guidance and protection for the community.