The Debate over Qualified Immunity for Police

The Story:

In the wake of the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, the issue of the “qualified immunity” of police officers such as Chauvin, their legal protection in the US from a range of civil lawsuits and monetary awards for their abuses of their authority, has become politically very powerful.


The doctrine of qualified immunity falls, as the term suggests, short of an absolute immunity. Police officers who violate clearly established constitutional or statutory rights of which a reasonable person would have been aware are not protected. It is designed to protect officers who violate controversial rights, which may be firmly established as rights only after the police officer’s actions, or who in general make judgment calls that are reasonable at the time even should they look mistaken in hindsight.

The Thing to Know: 

The doctrine of qualified immunity directly violates the broad notion that “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” It does allow officers to cite their (reasonable) ignorance as an excuse. Should Floyd’s family bring a civil suit against Chauvin, they could end up litigating the issue of whether that jurisdiction previously had cases about kneeling on someone’s neck until he dies — Chauvin will be in a position to argue that, if there was no precisely similar case, he was reasonable ignorant of the law.

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