Faces, victims, issues and debates surrounding qualified immunity: A USA TODAY Opinion series

·4 min read

Most people believe that if someone violates their constitutional rights, they have a right to sue.

But that's often not true. If the person they're looking to sue is a public official, particularly a public safety official, it could be nearly impossible to get a day in court. That's because qualified immunity, a doctrine created by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1960s and emboldened in the 1980s, makes most government workers largely immune to civil lawsuits.

USA TODAY Opinion is exploring the issue of qualified immunity and the need for reform on a national scale. The ongoing series will include personal stories from victims and their families, views from police departments and officers accused of abuse, and perspectives from criminal justice experts to explain the issues around qualified immunity.

The project was made possible in part by a grant from Stand Together, which does not provide editorial input.

The voices of people affected

A bad cop sexually assaulted me. Qualified immunity protected him and his boss.

By Lynette Christmas

Valentine’s Day 2016 wasn’t spent celebrating love and romance. Instead, it was the day deputy Thomas Carl Pierson, of Georgia's Harris County Sheriff’s Office, grossly violated my constitutional rights.

Feb. 14, 2016, was the day Pierson sexually assaulted me. [...]

More from those denied a day in court

He was asleep in his car. Police woke him up and created a reason to kill him.

By Sarah Gelsomino

Luke Stewart, a 23-year-old Black man, was asleep in his parked car on March 13, 2017, when he was approached by police officers Matthew Rhodes and Louis Catalani. He was parked legally in Euclid, a suburb of Cleveland, and he wasn't posing a danger to anyone.

Catalani knocked on Luke’s window, startling him awake. They did not announce themselves as officers. Luke sat up and started the car. Catalani and Rhodes immediately opened Luke's car doors and reached inside to forcibly remove him. Catalani grabbed Luke’s arm, and he wrapped his arm around Luke’s head and pulled, while Rhodes pushed from the passenger side.

Scared, Luke attempted to drive away, but Rhodes jumped into the passenger seat. Luke looked at Rhodes and asked, “Why are you in my car?” [...]

Columns that examine the issue

Suing cops takes forever because they get 3 chances to appeal. Why should they?

By Raffi Melkonian

Qualified immunity offers startling procedural benefits to government defendants. Just compare the way a normal lawsuit proceeds through the civil justice system with the way a lawsuit involving qualified immunity proceeds. [...]

More from experts

Perspectives that promote solutions

Columns that offer counterbalance

Editorials that push for change

Courts must hold rogue cops accountable everywhere — even at the dentist

Editorial Board

In parts of the U.S., federal officers enjoy near-absolute immunity from lawsuits, no matter how badly they behave. Under a 1988 law, they cannot be sued in state courts. And in federal courts, an avenue to sue that was opened in 1971 has been all but closed off.

Congress could fix the problem, but the issue has gotten little attention. Courts should make clear that out-of-control cops won't get a free pass to abuse people anywhere in the U.S.

More from USA TODAY's Editorial Board

Engage with the project

More about the project

This series is meant to inform the public about the issue of qualified immunity. It is supported in part by a grant from Stand Together, a nonprofit organization that supports projects that address major civic and social issues including criminal justice, education, poverty, and immigration.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Qualified immunity, supreme court, police reform: How it affects you

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting