CONNECTICUT LAW LIMITS QUALIFIED IMMUNITY
Sept. 8, 2020
Connecticut becamse the second of the fifty states (Colorado was the first) to address the issue of qualified immunity in civil lawsuits against police officers. July Special Session Public Act 20-1, titled "An Act Concerning Police Accountability," was passed by both houses of the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Lamont.
Abolishing or limiting qualified immunity in police misconduct suits has become a goal of police reform. I explained qualified immunity in a Law 203 video and in a Twitter thread (follow me @LegalDeMatteo). I also made a series of videos on the steps I think we should take to address problems in policing. Reforming qualified immunity was one of them.
The most common action for civil rights violations against government actors is a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. 1983, a federal statute. The defense of qualified immunity often asserted in 1983 actions was developed by federal courts. It therefore cannot be repealed or reformed by a state legislature, but only by an act of Congress or a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. What could a state do? Create its own civil action under a state statute. Connecticut did just that.
The relevant part of the act provides: “In any civil action brought under this section, governmental immunity shall only be a defense to a claim for damages when, at the time of the conduct complained of, the police officer had an objectively good faith belief that such officer's conduct did not violate the law.” The act removes the defense only from officers who lacked a good-faith basis for their actions. It does not completely abolish the defense. The new state action is nearly identical to Sec. 1983. Unlike 1983, it contains a limitiation on qualified immunity. Qualified immunity does not appear anywhere in 1983. It derived from a common law good-faith exception and was expanded by federal courts, including the Supreme Court, since the 1960's. Connecticut's statute is a good start in reigning in an overly expanded doctrine to how it existed when 1983 was first enacted.