New York State

State Sen. Zellnor Myrie wants to end qualified immunity

The legal defense has been criticized for giving police officers an unfair advantage in civil lawsuits.

State Senator Zellnor Myrie

State Senator Zellnor Myrie NY Senate Photo

On Thursday, state Sen. Zellnor Myrie said he plans to introduce a bill that would eliminate qualified immunity, a legal defense that has prevented police officers from being subjected to civil lawsuits.

Myrie’s announcement comes just two weeks after the state passed a hefty police reform package, which was born out of a national push to confront police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. “Victims of police brutality have been unable to get any sort of relief because at every turn the courts have used the doctrine of qualified immunity to shield officers from liability,” Myrie told the Daily News. “In the absence of federal action, I think it’s important for New York to step up and show people that we will hold police officers liable for misconduct.”

Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that states that a public employee can not be sued while they are doing their job, even if they may be violating someone’s constitutional rights. It was created to shield government employees from petty litigation but has helped protect police officers in civil lawsuits more recently. This has often kept officers accused of using excessive force from being held accountable for their actions.

A Reuters investigation found that officers won 56% of excessive force cases in federal courts from 2017 to 2019 when they used qualified immunity as a defense. A 2014 New York University Law Review article found that officers hardly ever face consequences for their “egregious” conduct while on the clock. Critics have argued that it’s extremely difficult to fight the qualified immunity defense in court, which gives officers an unfair advantage.

New York City Police Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch is unhappy with Myrie’s proposal. “Once again, our elected officials are dumping all of the liability for their decisions onto the police officer on the street,” he told the Daily News. “They make the laws, they set the policies, they pick the enforcement priorities. But when something goes wrong, they are the only ones who aren’t held accountable.”