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SCOTUS Considers Reexamining Qualified Immunity for Police. Here’s What That Means

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  • The Supreme Court is considering whether or not to hear cases involving questions of qualified immunity.
  • Qualified immunity is a judicial doctrine that originally intended to protect government officials and police from frivolous lawsuits.
  • But over time, courts have interpreted it to basically let officials violate people’s constitutional rights without legal consequences and allow police brutality to go unpunished.
  • House and Senate Democrats also introduced a sweeping police reform bill Monday that included a provision to reform qualified immunity, however, the Trump administration has expressed opposition to changing the doctrine.

What Is Qualified Immunity?

The Supreme Court this week is weighing whether or not it will reexamine the controversial legal doctrine known as qualified immunity that has been used to protect police and government officials from being sued for their conduct.

As protests over the death of George Floyd continue amid mounting pressure to drastically reform the police, the technical and previously little-known doctrine has taken center stage at protests, as well as legal and political debates.

Qualified immunity is a judicial doctrine first established in the 1960s. It was initially intended to protect government officials, including police officers, from frivolous lawsuits.

The idea behind the doctrine was that officials will do their jobs better if they are not worried about being sued. In the context of the police, it was intended to give them some breathing room to make quick decisions in dangerous situations.

One of the most important things to know about qualified immunity is that it is not outlined in the Constitution or under any law. 

The doctrine is a creation of the judiciary system and over time, courts have interpreted it to basically give officials and officers incredibly broad legal immunity from violating an individual’s constitutional rights.

The Problem With “Clearly Established”

In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled in Harlow v. Fitzgerald that, “government officials performing discretionary functions, generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”

To those of us not versed in constitutional law, that may sound like the Supreme Court ruled that government officials cannot violate statutory or constitutional rights— but the key phrase here is “clearly established.”

Since the Harlow decision, The Supreme Court has repeatedly enforced an incredibly narrow definition of “clearly established” so that cases heard by lower courts must be based on extremely specific precedents.

In fact, the definition is so narrow that it basically requires a court to throw out a case unless there is a prior court ruling on another case that involved a nearly identical situation.

Here’s an example: In 2019, two police officers approached a woman named Shaniz West because they believed her ex-boyfriend—  who had an outstanding felony arrest warrant—  was inside her house.

West gave police permission to enter her home, and they proceeded to smash windows and use tear gas. 

West sued, but two members of a three-judge panel ruled that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because there was no past case that had explicitly determined that police are not allowed to smash windows or fire tear gas in a house that a homeowner had given them permission to enter.

In 2001, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that intended to give courts more power to declare more conduct illegal. 

That ruling required judges hearing qualified immunity cases to decide two questions: First, whether the conduct of the official or officer violated a constitutional right. If the judge found they had, the next step was to determine if the action was illegal because it violated a “clearly established” precedent from a prior ruling.

But in 2009, the Supreme Court decided that the two-step framework was not mandatory. Now, according to a Reuters investigation, most judges just skip over the first question and go right to deciding if the defendant violated a very specific past precedent.

In other words, judges are more likely to decide that a government official or police officer is immune from a lawsuit without ruling whether that person acted illegally.

That decision had a chilling effect.

“Because of a 2009 Supreme Court decision, lower courts have most often dismissed police brutality lawsuits on grounds that there is no prior court decision with nearly identical facts.” Nina Totenberg wrote for NPR

“Several recent studies, including one conducted by Reuters, have found that dozens of cases involving horrific facts, just as bad as the one involving Floyd, were thrown out of court on the grounds that there was no ‘clearly established; court precedent forbidding the conduct at issue,” she added.

Even beyond that, the Reuters investigation also found that since 2005, “the courts have shown an increasing tendency to grant immunity in excessive force cases.”

What Next?

Critics of qualified immunity argue that it has become a Catch-22, where someone cannot seek justice for a rights violation just because courts have not seen or ruled on that very specific violation before. 

Many also argue that the doctrine has basically become a tool to let police brutality go unpunished in many circumstances and to deny people constitutional rights.

However, others argue that changing qualified immunity would diminish the ability of the police to protect and serve.

“I don’t think you need to reduce immunity to go after the bad cops, because that would result certainly in police pulling back,” Attorney General Bill Barr said on “Face the Nation” Sunday. 

“Policing is the toughest job in the country,” he continued. “And I, frankly, think that we have generally the vast, overwhelming majority of police are good people. They’re civic-minded people who believe in serving the public. They do so bravely. They do so righteously.”

As for the future of qualified immunity, it is currently uncertain.

While the Supreme Court decides whether or not to hear any of the half a dozen cases involving qualified immunity it is currently considering, Congress has begun to take matters into its own hands.

On Monday, both House and Senate Democrats proposed a sweeping police reform bill that, among other things, would change qualified immunity so plaintiffs could recover damages.

However, it remains unclear if Republicans will support the bill. Separately, a spokeswoman for President Donald Trump specifically expressed skepticism about the proposed reform to qualified immunity.

“He hasn’t reviewed it yet,” the spokeswoman said of the bill. “He’s looking at a number of proposals.”

“But there are some non-starters in there, I would say, particularly on the immunity issue,” she continued before referencing Barr’s remarks.

See what others are saying: (Reuters) (NPR) (Vox

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Lincoln College to Close for Good After COVID and Ransomware Attack Ruin Finances

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Last year, 1,043 schools in the U.S. were the victim of ransomware attacks, including 26 colleges or universities, according to an analysis by Emsisoft.


One of the Only Historically Black Colleges in the Midwest Goes Down

After 157 years of educating mostly Black students in Illinois, Lincoln College will close its doors for good on Friday.

The college made the announcement last month, citing financial troubles caused by the coronavirus pandemic and a ransomware attack in December.

Enrollment dropped during the pandemic and the administration had to make costly investments in technology and campus safety measures, according to a statement from the school.

A shrinking endowment put additional pressure on the college’s budget.

The ransomware attack, which the college has said originated from Iran, thwarted admissions activities and hindered access to all institutional data. Systems for recruitment, retention, and fundraising were completely inoperable at a time when the administration needed them most.

In March, the college paid the ransom, which it has said amounted to less than $100,000. But according to Lincoln’s statement, subsequent projections showed enrollment shortfalls so significant the college would need a transformational donation or partnership to make it beyond the present semester.

The college put out a request for $50 million in a last-ditch effort to save itself, but no one came forward to provide it.

A GoFundMe aiming to raise $20 million for the college only collected $2,452 as of Tuesday.

Students and Employees Give a Bittersweet Goodbye

“The loss of history, careers, and a community of students and alumni is immense,” David Gerlach, the college’s president, said in a statement.

Lincoln counts nearly 1,000 enrolled students, and those who did not graduate this spring will leave the institution without degrees.

Gerlach has said that 22 colleges have worked with Lincoln to accept the remaining students, including their credits, tuition prices, and residency requirements.

“I was shocked and saddened by that news because of me being a freshman, so now I have to find someplace for me to go,” one student told WMBD News after the closure was announced.

When a group of students confronted Gerlach at his office about the closure, he responded with an emotional speech.

“I have been fighting hard to save this place,” he said. “But resources are resources. We’ve done everything we possibly could.”

On April 30, alumni were invited back to the campus to revisit the highlights of their college years before the institution closed.

On Saturday, the college held its final graduation ceremony, where over 200 students accepted their diplomas and Quentin Brackenridge performed the Lincoln Alma Mater.

Last year, 1,043 schools in the U.S. were the victim of ransomware attacks, including 26 colleges or universities, according to an analysis by Emsisoft.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Herald Review) (CNN)

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U.S. Tops One Million Coronavirus Deaths, WHO Estimates 15 Million Worldwide

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India’s real COVID death toll stands at about 4.7 million, ten times higher than official data, the WHO estimated.


One Million Dead

The United States officially surpassed one million coronavirus deaths Wednesday, 26 months after the first death was reported in late February of 2020.

Experts believe that figure is likely an undercount, since there are around 200,000 excess deaths, though some of those may not be COVID-related.

The figure is the equivalent of the population of San Jose, the tenth-largest city in the U.S., vanishing in just over two years. To put the magnitude in visual perspective, NECN published a graphic illustrating what one million deaths looks like.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the White House predicted between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans would die from the coronavirus in a best-case scenario.

By February 2021, over half a million Americans had died of COVID.

The coronavirus has become the third leading cause of death in the U.S. behind heart disease and cancer.

The pandemic’s effects go beyond its death toll. Around a quarter of a million children have lost a caregiver to the virus, including about 200,000 who lost one or both parents. Every COVID-related death leaves an estimated nine people grieving.

The virus has hit certain industries harder than others, with food and agriculture, warehouse operations and manufacturing, and transportation and construction seeing especially high death rates.

People’s mental health has also been affected, with a study in January of five Western countries including the U.S. finding that 13% of people reported symptoms of PTSD attributable to actual or potential contact with the virus.

Fifteen Million Dead

On Thursday, the World Health Organization estimated that nearly 15 million people have died from the pandemic worldwide, a dramatic revision from the 5.4 million previously reported in official statistics.

Between January 2020 and the end of last year, the WHO estimated that between 13.3 million and 16.6 million people died either due to the coronavirus directly or because of factors somehow attributed to the pandemic’s impact on health systems, such as cancer patients who were unable to seek treatment when hospitals were full of COVID patients.

Based on that range, scientists arrived at an approximate total of 14.9 million.

The new estimate shows a 13% increase in deaths than is usually expected for a two-year period.

“This may seem like just a bean-counting exercise, but having these WHO numbers is so critical to understanding how we should combat future pandemics and continue to respond to this one,” Dr. Albert Ko, an infectious diseases specialist at the Yale School of Public Health who was not linked to the WHO research, told the Associated Press.

Most of the deaths occurred in Southeast Asia, Europe, and the Americas.

According to the WHO, India counts the most deaths by far with 4.7 million, ten times its official number.

See what others are saying: (NBC) (U.S. News and World Report) (Scientific American)

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Official Says Missing Alabama Convict and Corrections Officer Had a “Special Relationship”

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Authorities have also said they now believe the officer willfully helped the inmate escape.


New Information on Missing Inmate & Officer

Authorities in Alabama revealed Tuesday that Assistant Director of Corrections for Lauderdale County Vicky White, who is accused of helping a murder suspect Casey Cole White escape from jail, had a “special relationship” with the inmate.

“Investigators received information from inmates at the Lauderdale County Detention Center over the weekend that there was a special relationship between Director White and inmate Casey White,” Lauderdale County Sheriff Rick Singleton said in a statement. “That relationship has now been confirmed through our investigation by independent sources and means.”

Officials have previously said that the two are not related, despite their shared surname.

Singleton elaborated on the nature of the relationship while speaking to CNN later on Tuesday. He said it took place “outside of her normal work hours” and added that although it did not include “physical contact,” he still characterized it as “a relationship of a different nature.”

“We were told Casey White got special privileges and was treated differently while in the facility than the other inmates,” Singleton said.

Also on Tuesday, the Marshals Service issued a statement confirming that authorities believe Officer White had helped Mr. White escape. The authorities described her as a “wanted fugitive” and offered a $5,000 reward for any information on her whereabouts. Earlier this week, the Marshals Service also offered a $10,000 reward for any information that could lead to Mr. White’s capture.

Singleton echoed the belief that Officer White’s actions were intentional while speaking to Good Morning America Wednesday.

“I think all of our employees and myself included were really hoping that she did not participate in this willingly. But all indications are that she absolutely did,” he said. “We’re very disappointed in that because we had the utmost trust in her as an employee and as an assistant director of corrections.”

Mysterious Escape

Vicky White and Casey White were last seen leaving the Lauderdale County jail just after 9:30 a.m. Friday. The officer told other employees that she was taking the inmate to a mental health evaluation at a courthouse just down the road, and that she would be going to a medical appointment after because she was not feeling well.

Officials later said her actions violated an official policy that required two sworn deputies to transport people with murder charges. In 2020, Mr. White was charged with two counts of capital murder in connection to a fatal stabbing he confessed to and was awaiting his trial in Lauderdale County.

Mr. White was also serving time for what officials said was a “crime spree” in 2015 which included home invasion, carjacking, and a police chase. He had also previously tried to escape from jail, police said.

It wasn’t until 3:30 p.m. on Friday that a jail employee reported to higher-ups that he was not able to reach Officer White on her phone and that Mr. White had never been returned to his cell.

During a press conference that same night, Singleton told reporters that there had never even been a scheduled mental health evaluation. At another briefing Monday, he announced that an arrest warrant had been issued for Vicky on a charge of “permitting or facilitating an escape in the first degree.”

At the time, Singleton said it was unclear “whether she did that willingly or was coerced or threatened” but added, “we know for sure she did participate.” 

See what others are saying: (CNN) (ABC News) (NPR)

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