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How Are We Flaunting Our 'Qualified Immunity' Today?
This case from Missouri is another example of why qualified immunity must end.
Qualified immunity is law enforcement's gold-plated "Get Out Of Jail Free" card. In theory, it's supposed to protect cops from "liability that could hamper their ability to do their jobs and subject their game-time decisions to a judicial system 'ill-suited' to make such second guesses." In practice, though, it more often places the police above the law they are supposed to enforce.
Here's another disturbing example, courtesy of Hannah Cox at Based.
In 2021, former deputy sheriff Brandon Cook was convicted for statutory sodomy of a 16 year old boy in his patrol car while he was on duty. Reportedly , two other police departments had already fired Cook before the incident. The former mayor, Ron Cummins, had urged the Scott County [Missouri] Sheriff Wes Drury not to hire Cook in the first place, warning he had once seen Cook plant evidence during a 2017 traffic stop.
The father of the boy who was molested was also a sheriff’s deputy and a colleague of Cook’s at the time of the crime. In September of 2018, the father threatened to sue Scott County for the incident with Cook based on the former deputy’s problematic history and a belief he never should have been given a position of power in the first place.
Scott County immediately and grossly retaliated with an investigation into the molested boy's parents. Just three months after the boy's father threatened a lawsuit, a Missouri Department of Social Services manager, Spring Cook (no apparent relation to Brandon), showed up at the family's home. And so began the harassment campaign.
The already traumatized boy was interviewed and subjected to invasive physical searches, and in January 2019, the county made a preliminary finding of child neglect against the parents, who were now at risk of losing everything — custody of their son, their jobs, and their good names.
A lawyer defended the parents pro-bono, and in August 2019, the Child Abuse and Neglect Review Board (CANRB) found that the charges of neglect were "unsubstantiated under a preponderance of the evidence standard." The nightmare didn't end here, though. The parents contend that Cook contacted the FBI, which led to a federal investigation into the charges that CANRB had dismissed.
The parents sued Cook, but the Eighth US Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately ruled there is "no such thing as constitutional protection from retaliatory investigation.”
The Eighth Circuit based its decision on qualified immunity, and the parents' lead attorney on the case, Anya Bidwell, believes this set a dangerous precedent.
“SCOTUS, in Malley vs Briggs, said that qualified immunity does not shield those who are plainly incompetent and knowingly violate the law," Bidwell said. "But this decision shows qualified immunity is much broader than that and protects even those government officials who launch investigations without probable cause.”
A case worker in California claimed in 2016 that qualified immunity shielded them from accountability even if they outright lied in order to get the court to approve removing a child from her mother. The Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals didn't buy this reasoning, but the Eighth Circuit is seemingly more tolerant of gangster-style social service tactics.
The parents appealed to the US Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case. That's hardly a shock decision, but it's arguably better than the conservative majority outright ruling in favor of vengeance-based investigations. Nonetheless, we agree with Bidwell, who said, "Retaliatory investigations ruin lives, drain bank accounts and cast an unsubstantiated cloud of guilt on everyone within their reach. Worst of all, they intimidate citizens into staying silent. That’s anathema to the First Amendment. There must be an ability to sue government officials when they do this to you.”
[ Based ]
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