Last week New York City Council voted to end police officers’ qualified immunity from lawsuits. Last year Colorado and Connecticut passed laws ending police immunity, and states of New Mexico, Florida, and Maine are currently considering similar legislation. These efforts need to be expanded to all states and broadened to eliminate qualified immunity of police officers and absolute immunity of prosecutors.
I personally experienced a 12 year legal nightmare that eventually resulted in the first prosecutor in Maine’s history to be disciplined through my bar complaint, and several police and prosecutors settling my Federal civil rights lawsuit against them. It took years to fight through the maze of legal obstacles. My final results were extremely rare as it is virtually impossible to overcome police and prosecutorial immunity in court.
In Maine, state representative Jeffrey Evangelos introduced a new bill called An Act To Eliminate Qualified Immunity for Police Officers. Some in law enforcement have voiced their opposition, arguing that it would impede their work unless they have immunity from lawsuits for misconduct. It is a very cynical argument, suggesting that police can only do their job if they have immunity to violate people’s rights. It is the same type of argument prosecutors make to defend their own absolute immunity.
Rather than help protect the efficacy and integrity of the justice system, qualified and absolute immunity allows state actors to engage in civil rights abuse with impunity. I personally experienced police and prosecutors engage in egregious misconduct such as withholding crucial exculpatory evidence and fabricating false evidence and reports. Police and prosecutors are almost never held accountable for their misconduct. Even after all the unprecedented court findings in my case, no one even faced reprimand from their superiors, or from the attorney general. The actors in question were not even put on the Giglio list, which requires a record and disclosure to defense attorneys of any police officers with past credibility issues.
Often, prosecutors and police are not even held to legal and professional standards of conduct by officials who are responsible with their oversight. Victims of misconduct are usually left with no recourse as most private attorneys will not undertake civil lawsuits against police or prosecutors because they are expensive and virtually impossible to win due to complex immunity protections involved. And while many who are accused of crimes are only provided underpaid court appointed attorneys to defend them, police and prosecutors get exceptional private defense attorneys from reputable law firms to defend them at public’s expense.
In rare cases where police or prosecutors lose a civil lawsuit, the State or municipal insurance pays the judgement on their behalf. Ending qualified and absolute immunity would force insurance companies and state and local governments to scrutinize police and prosecutors as a condition of insuring them. Such forced scrutiny would help protect the public from abusive officials by preventing them from being insurable, hence make them un-hireable for positions of power.
The Federal Court’s Final Judgement in my lawsuit called my experience in Maine courts a living example of what Franz Kafka wrote about in his novel “The Trial”. Similar Kafkaesque abuses will only continue so long as police and prosecutors are not held fully accountable for their misconduct.
The Founding Fathers fought the British crown in order to live free of its nobility’s privilege to abuse their power with full immunity. It is un-American to continue a relic of that class system, derived directly from the British Common Law of king’s courts, which gave its law enforcers immunity for their misconduct. We must all be equal under the law and be afforded the same protection of our inalienable Constitutional Rights. Abolishing police and prosecutorial immunity would help protect people’s rights, and the integrity of the justice system.
© Vladek Filler