After serving 15 years behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit, Aaron Salter is a vocal critic of qualified immunity. At the same time, supporters say the protection must remain in place.
Qualified immunity protects government officials, including police officers, from lawsuits. It means you can only sue if the violation of your rights has already been "clearly established."
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Salter said his whole case revolved around suggestive identification. For him, finding freedom through exoneration after a decade and a half in state prison marked the start of another crusade for justice.
He recalls how as a high school graduate from Detroit, he was charged and convicted in a shooting murder he had nothing to do with. It was the result of a broken system and to this day he says those responsible walk free.
Salter said qualified immunity made it harder for him to receive justice.
"It’s basically them saying that we don’t want this person to be held accountable,” said Salter.
At the University of Michigan, Prof. Michael Steinberg is teaching classes that cover the very subject.
When it comes to qualified immunity, Steinberg said he tells his students that "it prohibits the courts from finding an officer liable for violating rights, unless the law was clearly established at the time of the constitutional violation.”
Attorney Wolf Mueller said silent police misconduct, such as hiding and manufacturing evidence, often goes unpunished because it’s less visible.
"That’s not caught on video like George Floyd, with an officer putting a knee on someone’s neck for 9 minutes. The cases out now, in wrongful convictions, that doesn’t happen.”
Yet members of law enforcement have also taken a stand recently to say qualified immunity protects against frivolous lawsuits and prevents officers who serve with honor from leaving the force.
This week, Detroit’s police chief, the Oakland County Sheriff and others spoke publicly about it. Now a union leader is weighing in on the debate.
“Qualified immunity has worked well for over 50 years. It’s a constitutional protection,” said Lt. Mark Young, president of the Detroit Police Lieutenants and Sergeants Association.
Young said qualified immunity is not absolute protection and is in place for when officers act in good faith.
“In law enforcement, there’s a black, white and gray area,” he said. "It’s a protection for those who go out and do an honest job following policy and procedure.”
As the debate rages on the future of qualified immunity remains a key issue for countless Americans.
“Cities and the counties indemnify or cover the cops if there's a judgment against them, they're not personally paying anything out of their pocket. So this idea that people won't want to become cops is nonsense. The other part of it is that an officer might think twice before pulling the trigger. They don't think about qualified immunity when they're involved in a tense situation. That's also nonsense," said Mueller.
Young said, "they don’t have a chance to Monday morning quarterback or review. A lot happens in split seconds.”
Lawmakers will ultimately decide what happens next, with the impact of that decision playing a huge role in policing in America.
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