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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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Thanksgiving Travel Will Lead to COVID-19 Spike, Health Officials Warn

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  • As travel soared for the Thanksgiving holiday, health officials warn of an inevitable spike that will only worsen with Christmas on the way. 
  • Dr. Anthony Fauci urged travelers to isolate and quarantine as a “surge upon a surge” is on the way. Dr. Deborah Birx said that anyone who traveled should assume and act as if they have the virus.
  • The month of November saw 4.2 million cases in the U.S., nearly one-third of the cases the country has seen throughout the pandemic. Deaths are also on the rise again. 
  • But in good news, Moderna is submitting its vaccine for FDA approval. It is the second company to do so behind Pfizer, and says its vaccine is 94% effective.

Cases and Travel on the Rise

After the U.S. saw record-breaking pandemic travel leading up to Thanksgiving, top health officials are urging travelers to quarantine as a surge in cases is likely coming. 

On the day before Thanksgiving over 1,070,000 people traveled through airport security, which is the highest since the pandemic began, according to tallies from CNN Travel. While that is 40% less than the number of people who traveled the same day last year, it comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged the nation not to travel for the holiday. Over 6 million people went on to travel after the CDC made that plea. 

The U.S. has seen a total of 13.4 million cases and lost 266,000 lives to the coronavirus. On Friday, the country broke a grim record, reporting over 205,000 new cases in a single day. The month of November has been one of the most consequential when it comes to the spread of COVID-19. At least 4.2 million cases were reported in November alone. This is over double the 1.9 million reported in October, which is the month with the second-highest number of cases. It also accounts for over 30% of the country’s total cases since the pandemic started.

Deaths are also on the rise. Nearly 36,000 lives have been lost in November, the highest that number has been since May. The month with the highest death toll is April when just under 59,000 people died.

Health Officials Warn of Surge

Because a surge in travel came at the same time cases were already on a concerning rise, the nation’s top health officials are urging travelers to isolate and test themselves as another rush of cases is nearly inevitable. 

“We have to be careful now because there almost certainly is going to be an uptick because of what has happened with the travel,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told ABC News on Sunday. 

“And perhaps two or three weeks down the line, Martha, we may see a surge upon a surge,” Dr. Fauci explained. “You know, we don’t want to frighten people, but that’s just the reality. We said that these things would happen as we got into the cold weather and we began traveling and they’ve happened. It’s gonna happen again.”

Officials believe that those who have traveled need to do everything in their power to prevent their ability to spread the virus as they return home. Dr. Deborah Birx, a top coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, said that travelers should just assume they have COVID-19.

“We know people may have made mistakes over the Thanksgiving time period. If you’re young and you gathered, you need to be tested about five to 10 days later,” she said on Face the Nation. “But you need to assume that you’re infected and not go near your grandparents and aunts and others without a mask.” 

The impacts of another surge could be severe. Across the country, hospitals are already overwhelmed. If cases skyrocket in the coming weeks, many places will not be equipped to handle the caseload. As Christmas approaches, travel and indoor gatherings will ramp up again, and another surge after that is also sure to come. 

Moderna to Seek FDA Approval

But hope is on the horizon. Pfizer has already announced that it has begun the process of seeking FDA approval for its vaccine. Now, Moderna is on the same track. The Massachusetts-based company plans on submitting its vaccine for FDA authorization on Monday after expanded data showed that it is 94.1% effective overall and 100% effective in preventing severe cases. 

Moderna’s study involved 30,000 people and resulted in 196 cases. The company said 185 of those came from the placebo group and 11 came from the vaccine group. It also said 30 of the reported cases were severe, all of which were from the placebo group. 

So far, Moderna claims the efficacy of the vaccine is consistent across a number of demographics. The company also says that while a safety review is still ongoing, no serious concerns have been identified. The most common reactions included injection site pain, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, and a few other milder side effects. In addition to submtting for approval from the FDA in the U.S., it will also seek authorization in Europe. 

“We believe that our vaccine will provide a new and powerful tool that may change the course of this pandemic and help prevent severe disease, hospitalizations and death.” Stéphane Bancel the Chief Executive Officer of Moderna said in a statement. “I want to thank the thousands of participants in our Phase 1, Phase 2 and Phase 3 studies, as well as the staff at clinical trial sites who have been on the front lines of the fight against the virus.”

Moderna’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tal Zaks, told the Associated Press that when he saw how promising the results were, he became emotional.

“I allowed myself to cry for the first time,” he told the outlet. “We have already, just in the trial, have already saved lives. Just imagine the impact then multiplied to the people who can get this vaccine.”

Moderna expects to hold their big meeting with the FDA’s vaccine committee December 17, a week after Pfizer’s meeting. Once approved the vaccine will likely go to frontline workers and vulnerable populations first and both companies are getting ready to dole out vaccines the second they are allowed to do so. According to the AP, Moderna expected to have enough doses for 10 million people by the end of the year. Pfizer plans to have enough for 12.5 million in the United States. 

See what others are saying: (CNN) (Associated Press) (CBS News)

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As Unemployment Claims Rise, CA Officials Report Inmates Collected Millions in Benefits

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  • Unemployment numbers spiked for the second week in a row, marking the highest amount of new claims made since early October with 778,000 people filing. Over 20 million Americans are still collecting some kind of joblessness aid.
  • Experts say this will only get worse as COVID cases continue to rise and states impose more restrictions. However, unlike during the spring shutdowns, struggling Americans and small businesses will likely not have any help from the federal government.
  • Meanwhile, law enforcement officials in California reported that tens of thousands of inmates received upwards of $1 billion in unemployment benefits as part of a scam that officials described as “the most significant fraud on taxpayer funds in California history.”

Unemployment Numbers Spike

Another 778,000 Americans filed for unemployment this week, the Department of Labor reported Wednesday, marking the highest spike since early October and the second week in a row that new claims have risen.

According to experts, this data signals that the massive coronavirus spikes the U.S. has seen in recent weeks are slowing the economy once again. On Wednesday, the country reported a record 2 million new cases in the same two weeks that joblessness claims also went up, bringing the official case count to more than 12.6 million Americans infected and over 260,000 dead.

As the COVID-19 spikes continue, and with more state and local governments imposing new restrictions on public gatherings, limiting hours and operations for restaurants and bars, and temporarily closing down some businesses entirely, economists say this situation will get worse before it gets better.

Unlike the first wave of shutdowns this past spring, it seems almost certain that struggling Americans will have to weather these latest closures without any help from the government.

Already, many of the programs that gave trillions of dollars to unemployed Americans and small businesses under the CARES Act have expired, and most of the few remaining programs will run out soon.

That is especially concerning when it comes to unemployment benefits. According to a recent report from the progressive think tank The Century Foundation, unless Congress and the White House sign off on a deal to extend key programs, roughly 12 million Americans will lose these benefits entirely the day after Christmas.

But after months of deadlock, any hopes for a new stimulus package petered out when the election came around. Democratic leadership is reportedly attempting to restart those talks, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he wants to approve some kind of bill before the end of the year. 

However, it remains unclear how all the problems that had deadlocked the lawmakers for months during the earlier negotiations will be resolved in time.

Inmate Unemployment Fraud

Meanwhile, states are still continuing to struggle with distributing unemployment benefits to jobless Americans.

On Tuesday, a task force lead by nine district attorneys across the state of California reported in a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) that tens of thousands of prison and jail inmates — including more than 100 people on death row — have collected hundreds of millions of dollars in unemployment benefits as part of a scam that the officials say “appears to be the most significant fraud on taxpayer funds in California history,”

According to the task force, between March and August, inmates housed in every single California prison and in jails throughout the state filed 35,000 claims totaling at least $140 million in benefits, though the alleged crimes could total as much as $1 billion.

In most cases, officials said that the payments were given out in the form of prepaid debit cards sent to friends or family on the outside who would then later deposit the proceeds to inmate accounts.

In some cases, the joblessness benefits were sent directly to the jails and prisons. Sometimes the inmates used their real names, but other times, they used fake names and fake Social Security numbers.

In fact, prosecutors were tipped off to some of the cases by listening to inmates recorded phone calls, where they bragged about how easy it was the game the system.

As far as how such widespread fraud could happen, law enforcement officials blamed California’s Employment Development Department, which has been swamped with processing more than 16.4 million unemployment claims since March, resulting in a massive backlog of unfilled claims that, according to reports, has totaled upwards of more than 1.6 million people at times.

However, the task force also said that part of the problem was due to the fact that unlike at least 35 other states, California does not have the technology to crosscheck inmate rosters against unemployment claims.

Looking Forward

In their letter, the officials called on Newsom to crack down on the rampant fraud and provide “significant resources” to do so. 

Newsom, for his part, responded in a statement by calling the fraud “absolutely unacceptable,” and ordering the Office of Emergency Services to create a task force to help the prosecutors with their investigation.

However, as The New York Times pointed out, Newsom had already formed a “strike team” a few months ago to help the state’s employment department speed up claims and address other issues, including fraud at correctional facilities.

The district attorneys were still forced to form their own task force with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation after the reports of fraud in the employment department continued and the “strike team” failed to uncover the large amounts of fraud the other groups had seen.

Currently, it is unclear how Newsom’s new task force is different from the largely unsuccessful “strike team.” 

California, of course, is not the only state having these issues with unemployment insurance fraud. There have also been similar reports of fraud in Massachusetts, Illinois, Kansas, and other states.

These problems also go beyond unemployment. There have been frequent reports of CARES Act funding being misused, including by people using small business loans to buy luxury cars, as well as large companies or businesses connected to President Donald Trump Trump and members of Congress improperly receiving funding.

As Congress considers another much-needed stimulus package, these issues of transparency and accountability have now become paramount. 

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (NBC News) (USA Today

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COVID-19 Cases Expected To Surge After Thanksgiving

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  • With coronavirus cases already on a steep rise in the U.S, experts are warning that Thanksgiving travel and gatherings will likely make things worse. Canada, for example, saw a jump in cases after its citizens celebrated the holiday last month.
  • Surgeon General Jerome Adams said that Americans should hold out for a vaccine, which is on the horizon, and be safe this Thanksgiving.
  • A family in Texas is also waring against gathering, saying they learned how dangerous it is the hard way. After celebrating a birthday together, all 15 people who attended the party tested positive for the virus.
  • On top of this experts are also warning against thinking a negative test clears you for socialization. In reality, you can test negative for the virus and still have and transmit it.

Warning From Surgeon General 

As Thanksgiving looms closer, warnings against family gatherings are being echoed by experts and everyday people alike. 

Health officials have been vocal about the threat the Thanksgiving holiday poses when it comes to the coronavirus. The U.S. has seen 12.4 million cases and lost 257,000 lives to the virus, and cases have been on a steep increase this month. The CDC has already warned against travel and experts have said that based on the spike Canada saw after its October Thanksgiving, America is set to go down a similar, or even worse path. 

“I want the American people to know that we are at a dire point in our fight with this virus by any measure,”  U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said Monday on Good Morning America.Cases, positivity, hospitalizations, deaths. We’re seeing more Americans negatively impacted than ever before.” 

Adams said that with a vaccine on the horizon, Americans should just wait out this homestretch and stay put for the holiday.

“I’m asking Americans, begging you, hold on just a little bit longer,” he said. “Keep Thanksgiving and the celebration small and smart this year.” 

Family in Texas Urges Caution

Health officials are not the only ones preaching this advice. In Arlington, Texas, a family that has lived the consequences of gathering without regard for public health is urging people to not make the same mistake as them. The Aragonez family celebrated a birthday earlier this month indoors without masks or distancing. Now, all 15 people who attended tested positive for the virus. 

“We feel guilty for gathering,” members of the family said in a video encouraging caution. “All this pain that my family is feeling, this loneliness, this sickness, this longing to be healthy could have been prevented.” 

“Please don’t be like my family and ignore the CDC guidelines,” one person said. “By staying apart we can fight this virus together.” 

While most cases in the family were mild, one person was hospitalized for over a week.

“One moment of carelessness has cost us a month of peace, has cost us sleep, has cost us laughs, has cost us a lot of money,” one family member told the Washington Post. 

Testing Negative is Not Enough

Many have still forged on with their gathering plans under the false idea that if everyone tests negative before attending, they are in the clear to socialize. However, experts warn this is far from the case.

Just because a person tests negative does not necessarily mean they do not have the virus. Tests are not 100% accurate and it can take days or even a week to test positive for the virus after exposure. Not to mention, people could come into contract with the virus between their test and the family event. 

“A negative result is a snapshot in time,”  Dr. Paige Larkin, a clinical microbiologist at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Chicago explaining to the New York Times. “It’s telling you that, at that exact second you are tested, the virus was not detected. It does not mean you’re not infected.”

While it might slightly minimize the risk of spread, it certainly does not eliminate it. More than anything, it gives people a false sense of security that they have a free pass to go wherever and see whoever they want, despite the fact that it still poses a large health threat.

See what others are saying: (New York Times) (Washington Post) (Associated Press)

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