Amash bill would make it easier to sue cops who violate civil rights

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

U.S. Rep. Justin Amash of West Michigan is pushing a bill in Congress to make it easier for citizens to sue police officers who violate their civil rights, aiming to ending the doctrine known as qualified immunity.

Amash, a Libertarian who quit the Republican Party last year, introduced the bill in the U.S. House on Thursday with freshman Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, along with 16 original co-sponsors. U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, is among the sponsors. 

"We’ll work relentlessly to build support within Congress for this critical legislation. Police must be held accountable when they violate people’s rights," tweeted Amash, who represents the Grand Rapids area. 

U.S. Rep. Justin Amash speaks to constituents at the Rising Grind Cafe in Grand Rapids on Aug. 21, 2019.

The legislation follows the May 25 death of George Floyd, the unarmed black man whose death in Minneapolis police custody sparked outrage around the world. 

Floyd’s death ignited mostly peaceful protests in communities around the country condemning police brutality, racism and decades of unequal treatment of black Americans. Demonstrations in Detroit, Lansing and Grand Rapids at times turned violent with hundreds of arrests. 

Amash's bill explicitly says police officers who engage in civil rights violations are not exempt or immune from liability.

Federal law dating to 1871 had held that individuals may sue state and local officials including cops who violate their rights. But Amash said the U.S. Supreme Court starting in the 1960s created the qualified immunity doctrine, which has been criticized on both sides of the political spectrum. 

The doctrine, developed over years of case law, says police are immune from liability if the right was not "clearly established" at the time of the violation. That is, the plaintiff must show that a court in the same jurisdiction found in a previous case involving the same facts that a constitutional violation occurred. 

That can create a procedural "roadblock" for plaintiffs, blocking them from recovering damages and leaving them without a remedy for the violation of their rights, Amash and Pressley wrote in a letter to colleagues.

“Qualified immunity protects police and other officials from consequences even for horrific rights abuses,” Amash said in a statement.

“It prevents accountability for the ‘bad apples’ and undermines the public’s faith in law enforcement. It’s at odds with the text of the law and the intent of Congress, and it ultimately leaves Americans’ rights without appropriate protection," he added.

"Members of Congress have a duty to ensure government officials can be held accountable for violating Americans’ rights, and ending qualified immunity is a crucial part of that."