By Brooke Barnett and Lauren Bonds
We cannot achieve meaningful criminal justice reform without ending qualified immunity. As negotiations continue in the United States Senate, we call on Senator Cory Booker to continue efforts to end qualified immunity and achieve real reform that will rebuild our law enforcement system, regain public trust and will restore a path for those whose civil rights are violated to seek justice.
US citizens like Hamid Harris, a New Jersey resident, who was illegally and falsely arrested and jailed for 66 days after an illegal search and seizure and was the victim of malicious conspiracy and prosecution, deserve their day in court, and their justice is essential to protect the civil liberties of all Americans. Mr. Harris’ civil rights were violated and he was deprived of his fundamental freedoms and freedoms under our Constitution. This deprivation continues because our legal system has failed to offer him a trial. The trial court has twice ruled that the unreasonable and intentional actions of the defending officers did not entitle them to the protections of qualified immunity. But regardless, the case drags on as Mr Harris waits to hold officers, the Newark Police Department and the City of Newark to account as they continue to hide behind qualified immunity.
While Mr. Harris was in prison, he lost his job and his reputation in the community was destroyed as news was falsely spread that he was an armed robber. More worryingly, his 8-year-old daughter was exposed to the cruelty of other parents within their community by perpetuating the stigma that her father was a serious criminal wreaking havoc in their community. Although Mr. Harris was cleared of the criminal charges, the nightmare continued. He and his family left New Jersey but are still feeling the repercussions. Even renting an apartment has become impossible as a quick background check shows Mr Harris has already been charged with a series of armed robberies.
As civil rights lawyers, we know how difficult it is to hold officers, police departments and municipalities to account. One of the most important stumbling blocks is the doctrine of qualified immunity, a legal rule created by judges that has left a loophole in the rules that apply to all who cause harm to others in the ‘exercise of their functions.
Qualified immunity protects government officials from being held accountable for violating the constitutional rights of American citizens. Qualified immunity requires a person bringing a lawsuit to prove that their “clearly established” rights have been violated, that is, a court has previously ruled that a government official acted in such a way. inappropriate in a similar case. Even though the conduct of a police officer is patently illegal, like the actions of Detective Donald Stabile and Constable Angel Romero in the case of Mr. Harris, they may be protected by qualified immunity if no police officer has been prosecuted. for identical behavior. This rule allows police officers to avoid civil liability, even in flagrant cases.
Qualified immunity communicates to police that they are above the law and tells them that they can act with impunity. As recent experience shows, it is difficult to prevent officers from engaging in wrongdoing without responsibility. Recent experience also tells us that there is a growing consensus that police officers should face real consequences when they abuse their authority. With each new report of civil rights abuse or, in some cases, death, calls for change have multiplied.
Lawmakers now have the ability to respond to these calls. Qualified immunity was created by judges, but Congress can eliminate it. the George Floyd Justice in Police Act must do precisely that. We need officers invested in respecting the constitutional rights of individuals. This will only happen if the qualified immunity is removed. We can no longer allow the courts to circumvent constitutional violations, and we must hold lawmakers who promised reforms after the murder of George Floyd accountable for real change. Other than that, no set of policies, training, or reporting requirements will allow us to fulfill the full promise of criminal justice reform: ensuring the safety of communities that have suffered for too long. It is high time that our lawmakers heed these calls and respond with real justice.
Brooke Barnett is a civil rights and criminal defense lawyer in Newark. Lauren Bonds is the Legal Director of the National Police Accountability Project.
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