What is Governmental Immunity?

Police brutality has been in the news a lot lately. So, too, has the term “qualified immunity” and the question of whether citizens can sue police officers for civil rights violations. 

Here, we break down the definition of qualified immunity, at both the federal and state levels. We also discuss what the current laws mean for anyone seeking to sue a police officer for a civil rights violation and how a Hartford personal injury attorney can help you.

What is federal qualified immunity?

A fundamental concept in our country is that if someone violates another’s constitutional rights, that person can be sued and held liable for any injuries they caused. However, if the person is a public official, such as a police officer, they are held to a much lower standard than a regular person because of the doctrine of qualified immunity.

At the federal level, qualified immunity means that public officials are protected from liability, even if they acted unlawfully and violated another person’s constitutional rights, as long as their actions did not violate “clearly established law.”

How do you show that a police officer violated “clearly established law?” It requires a plaintiff to identify a prior Supreme Court case (or federal appeals court case in the same jurisdiction) that found the exact same conduct, under the identical circumstances, was illegal or unconstitutional. No matter how unconstitutional or malicious the actions of the police officer were, if there is not an identical case that already found those facts to be illegal, the police officer cannot be sued, and a victim cannot receive money damages for what has occurred.

This is the doctrine of qualified immunity and it makes it almost impossible for a plaintiff to sue a police officer in federal court for a violation of their civil rights.

What is governmental immunity in Connecticut?

Connecticut currently has its own version of qualified immunity called “governmental immunity.” Under the current laws, a municipal employee can only be held liable for an act that is considered “ministerial” as opposed to “discretionary.”

What is the difference between a ministerial and a discretionary act? Discretionary acts (those that a person cannot be held liable for) are those where there is no state statute or court decision requiring the employee to act like they did. Ministerial acts are all of the rest. In practice, almost all things someone does on the job are discretionary, as most laws in the state lay out what the government must do, but do not say how government employees must do it.

As the current law stands, it is challenging to sue a police officer in state court in Connecticut because hardly any of an officer’s actions are considered ministerial. However, the law is poised to change next year, and the current doctrine of governmental immunity will soon be history.

What will change when Connecticut’s police accountability bill goes into effect in 2021?

On July 31, 2020, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont signed into law a policing reform bill aimed to increase accountability for law enforcement. Among the most hotly contested provisions in the bill is the section limiting governmental immunity for police officers. Under the new law, which will go into effect on July 1, 2021, no police officer shall “deprive any person or class of persons of the equal protection of the laws of this state, or of the equal privileges and immunities under the laws of this state.” Because of this change in law, anyone whose rights are violated by a police officer will soon be able to sue the officer for damages in civil court in the state of Connecticut.

Can I sue law enforcement for my injuries? Are police officers immune from civil rights violations?

Whether you can sue law enforcement for your injuries sustained when your constitutional (state or federal) rights are violated remains a difficult question to answer. If you are harmed by the police and want to file a lawsuit, you can either file the suit in federal or state court, both of which currently have doctrines of immunity for police, as described above.

Currently, it is almost impossible to sue law enforcement in federal court and receive compensation. The case will most likely be dismissed, unless there is a prior case with the exact same facts as yours. Only then will you have a chance to have your case heard before a judge to decide the merits of the case. If there is not such a precedent case, yours will be dismissed on account of the doctrine of qualified immunity, no matter how egregious the violation. This means that police officers are immune from civil rights violations in almost all federal cases.

It will soon be easier to sue law enforcement for your injuries at the state level because of the upcoming changes to the law in Connecticut. With these changes, police officers will no longer be able to hide behind governmental immunity, and victims of police violence will be able to seek compensation in state court. 

Do I need a criminal defense attorney or a personal injury attorney?

If you or someone you love has been a victim of police violence in Connecticut, you should contact a Hartford personal injury attorney to discuss bringing a lawsuit against the officer who harmed you. The officer may be indicted on criminal charges, too, but that is up to the federal or state prosecutor’s office. Even if that were the case, you, as the victim, would never need a criminal defense attorney. You may be asked to cooperate with the investigation or to serve as a witness, but you would not be on trial, the officer would be.

If prosecutors choose not to pursue criminal charges or you wish to hold a police officer financially liable, you should consider reaching out to a Hartford personal injury attorney to discuss whether you should file a civil lawsuit. While the doctrines of qualified immunity and governmental immunity currently make it extremely difficult to bring a lawsuit against a police officer, there is mounting pressure to get rid of this immunity. We have already seen this progress in Connecticut, where the law will soon change. Even if you think immunity may bar your lawsuit from proceeding, do not hesitate to reach out to a Connecticut personal injury lawyer to discuss your options.

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