GOP Senator Introduces Measure To Curb Legal Shield For Law Enforcement

Tuesday, June 23rd 2020, 12:37 pm
By: CBS News

GOP Senator Mike Braun of Indiana is rolling out legislation aimed at reforming the powerful legal shield that protects police officers and other government officials from being sued for misconduct, an issue that has become a focal point in the debate over policing raging across the country.

The measure to be introduced by Braun on Tuesday targets the legal doctrine known as qualified immunity, which protects government officials from civil lawsuits unless victims can show officers violated "clearly established" constitutional or statutory rights. Created by the Supreme Court, the doctrine has faced heightened criticism in recent years due to the high bar victims must reach to hold law enforcement accountable for use of excessive force.

Braun's proposal scales qualified immunity back and says that government officials, including police, can claim qualified immunity only when they can prove their alleged conduct had previously been authorized by federal or state law, or when a court has found the alleged unlawful conduct was consistent with the U.S. Constitution and federal laws.

The bill would also ensure that municipalities are held accountable for their employees' misconduct.

"It's time Congress does their job to establish a qualified immunity law that defends law enforcement, while protecting the rights of the people," Braun said in a statement. The Indiana senator called the criteria law enforcement must satisfy to assert qualified immunity under his bill "a meaningful change that will help law enforcement and the citizens they protect."

Curbing qualified immunity has emerged as a flashpoint in the ongoing debate over how best to reform policing, which was sparked by the Memorial Day death of George Floyd in Minneapolis after a police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes. House Democrats earlier this month rolled out a sweeping legislative proposal that includes changes to the legal doctrine, but it remains untouched in a reform package introduced by Senate Republicans last week.

The White House has said changing qualified immunity is a "nonstarter," and GOP Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, who spearheaded the Senate's legislation, told "Face the Nation" this month that ending the doctrine would be a "poison pill" for the GOP in a police reform measure.

Still, the potential for a showdown between Braun and his fellow Republicans over qualified immunity has not deterred the Indiana senator, who told CBS News earlier this month the issue will be "one of the hotter discussion points."

While Congress is debating police reforms including whether to limit qualified immunity, the Supreme Court had the chance to wade into the debate over the controversial doctrine as it weighed nearly 10 cases involving government officials who claimed qualified immunity after they facing civil lawsuits.

The high court, however, rejected each of those appeals, making congressional action the more likely path for success in scaling back qualified immunity.