Protests ignited by the killing of George Floyd put a spotlight on the legal doctrine of qualified immunity. To successfully sue a police officer for excessive or abusive conduct, or to sue some other government official for violating your civil rights, a Plaintiff must demonstrate the offending public employee knew or should have known their alleged misconduct violated established law. “The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials from civil damages liability when their actions could reasonably have been believed to be legal.” Morgan v. Swanson, 659 F.3d 359, 370–71 (5th Cir. 2011). Officials are entitled to qualified immunity “unless (1) they violated a federal statutory or constitutional right, and (2) the unlawfulness of their conduct was ‘clearly established at the time.’” District of Columbia v. Wesby, 138 S. Ct. 577, 589 (2018) (quoting Reichle v. Howards, 566 U.S. 658, 664 (2012)).
The purpose of qualified immunity is to “balance two important interests – the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009). Whether an official is covered by qualified immunity is a matter of law to be decided by a court, “preferably on a properly supported motion for summary judgment or dismissal.” Wildoner v. Borough of Ramsey, 162 N.J. 375, 387 (2000).
The overly broad and vexing protections afforded rogue public actors by qualified immunity was well framed by Fifth Circuit Judge Don R. Willett in his concurring opinion in Zadeh v. Robinson, 928 F. 3d 457 (5th Cir. 2018):