At Public Justice, we know a whole web of systemic factors causes state violence, both physical and structural. And we know the harm is disproportionately enacted on people and communities of color. Our Qualified Immunity Project targets this one piece of the larger struggle for racial justice and safe, thriving communities. We seek to restore one of the central purposes of civil rights lawsuits: to hold government officials accountable for their misconduct.
Qualified immunity is a judge-made doctrine insulating state officials, including police officers and jail guards, from civil lawsuits. Even if an official violates someone’s constitutional rights, he will be immune from suit, unless the victim can prove his conduct was “clearly established” as unlawful in light of existing case law.
Courts increasingly require an absurd level of similarity between old cases and new ones for the violation to count as “clearly established.” On top of that, courts can avoid even ruling on whether the conduct was unlawful. If there’s no case clearly establishing the civil rights violation, that’s good enough for a court to let the officer off the hook and close the case. So violations that are not already clearly established, may never be.
When state actors act unlawfully and harm civilians, the law should be a tool for achieving justice for these victims and their families, not a barrier for bad actors to take shelter behind.
While other organizations focus on reducing police and carceral violence through grassroots activism and political pressure, we work to remove legal barriers, like qualified immunity, that make it harder for those harmed by such violence to hold the perpetrators accountable in court. The Qualified Immunity Project is part of Public Justice’s contribution to fighting state violence and systemic racism writ large.
Fighting Qualified Immunity One Case At A Time.
Public Justice’s Qualified Immunity Project has worked to hold accountable police officers and departments who have harmed civilians with impunity. Additionally, the QI Project has lent its strength to amici briefs, joining diverse voices to endorse ending qualified immunity.
In Hyman v. Devlin, a private repossession company tried to take Angela Hyman’s car from her driveway while her wife was sitting in it. It is unconstitutional for police to participate in civil repossession, Corporal Bryan Devlin threatened to break the car window, drag out Angela’s wife, and arrest her if she did not comply. When Devlin attempted to lie on the record, a recording of the incident proved the truth of the matter. A jury sided with Angela, awarding her compensatory and punitive damages; the district court denied Devlin qualified immunity. On appeal, we joined as co-counsel. The Third Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of qualified immunity.
In Nuncio v. Webb County, we represent Nelda Nuncio in a federal lawsuit against Webb County, its Sheriff, and its jail guards. Webb County Jail guards left Nelda’s son, Albert, to die alone in his jail cell, covered in his own feces and urine. For days, Albert himself begged for help even as his condition deteriorated; he was coughing up blood, unable to move from the floor, and begging for medical aid. Other people locked up with him also pleaded with the guards to get Albert medical help. The jailers ignored him. We seek to hold Webby County, its Sheriff, and its jailers accountable for this egregious harm.
Escamilla v. Webb County was a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the family of Rafael Edgardo Solis, Sr., a pretrial detainee at the Webb County Jail in Texas who died of asphyxiation allegedly caused by the jailers’ use of excessive force against him. Mr. Solis was taken into custody at the Webb County Jail on February 11, 2009 for falling behind on child support payment; he died 3 days later, in custody, at the hands of his jailers. We succeeded in securing a settlement for Mr. Solis’s family, and beating back a qualified immunity appeal for the seven jailers held responsible for Mr. Solis’s death.
Amicus Briefs Urging the Supreme Court to Abolish Qualified Immunity
Public Justice has also been a signatory on a number of amicus briefs, on behalf of a cross-ideological coalition, urging the Supreme Court to abolish qualified immunity. These include Corbitt v. Vickers, where a deputy sheriff who shot a ten-year-old child who was lying on the ground obeying the sheriff’s orders was granted qualified immunity; Baxter v. Bracey, where police officer who unleashed a dog on a man who was sitting with his hands in the air, having surrendered already, was granted qualified immunity; and I.B. v. Woodward, where a case-worker who strip-searched a pre-school aged child, without a warrant, was granted qualified immunity.
The National Police Accountability Project is the only organization of lawyers, legal workers and law students dedicated to representing plaintiffs in cases of police misconduct and other law enforcement and detention officer civil rights violations.
The National Conference on State Legislatures has a database for tracking state-level efforts to reform policing. Public Justice is also closely following state legislative solutions as another promising way to hold state actors accountable.