The recent police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and other Black Americans, along with a wave of police violence against protesters across the country, have sparked renewed scrutiny of “qualified immunity,” the court-created rule that makes it nearly impossible to sue police officers for excessive force and other constitutional violations. While a federal civil rights law allows people to bring constitutional claims against law enforcement officers, qualified immunity shields all but the “plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law” from liability—a high bar that effectively excuses egregious, often lethal misconduct, and leaves victims of police violence without legal recourse for the violation of their constitutional rights.
Indeed, qualified immunity could conceivably close the courthouse doors to the family of George Floyd if they sue the former Minneapolis Police Officer who killed him. Given the national and international response to Floyd’s murder, the City of Minneapolis is likely to settle any civil suit brought by his family. But if it sounds outlandish that a lawsuit seeking justice for a murder as horrific as Floyd’s—an on-duty police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than 8 minutes while Floyd lay face down on the ground, handcuffed and begging for his life—could be dismissed on qualified immunity, consider the case of Khari Illidge.