Resolved: The United States ought to limit qualified immunity for police officers.

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Resolved: The United States ought to limit qualified immunity for police officers.

The train of garbage resolutions continues. Not only is this topic mired in long and complicated legal doctrines, its lack of specificity also makes for a terrible debate. This could have been phrased much more appropriately as something like, “When in conflict, an individual’s constitutional rights ought to take priority over effective law enforcement.” This resolution does a miserable job of posing what is an otherwise interesting and politically relevant question. Instead, now we’re going to be forced to sit through hours of nonsensical debate about what the word “limit” means. Jeebus! I’m thinking of retiring if they keep this up. For now, though, we have to go through the crap we have to go through I suppose.

Definitions

Qualified Immunity – Qualified immunity protects law enforcement from liability for damages caused. To put it in simple terms, if a police officer destroys stuff or hurts people in the line of duty, he/she isn’t liable for those damages unless clearly established rights that the officer would have reasonably known about were violated. Here’s a good link with the legal background on it. http://www.lectlaw.com/def2/q063.htm

Limit – I can’t even begin to define this. Qualified immunity is already limited to not apply in cases where clearly established rights, which a reasonable person would be aware of, have been violated. How much more could it be limited? Do we put a monetary cap on the damages? Do we limit it to cases where unclear rights have been violated? Not to mention, it’s also only a defense against being sued. If the case goes to court, it doesn’t apply anyway. The way I see it, there are two ways to approach this definition to avoid a terrible debate.

  • The first is to take a theoretical approach and just say the means of limitation are irrelevant. We have to rephrase the question to effectively say, “Is qualified immunity too loosely used?” That way, the moral question of law enforcement liability can be addressed while avoiding the quagmire of how to legislate it.
  • The second is to say that limit means eliminate. This way the question also becomes much clearer and focuses on the moral legitimacy of qualified immunity.

Those seem like the two best options.

Case Positions

Affirmative

  1. Immunity Threatens Tyranny – Qualified immunity allows for a tyrannical and unaccountable police force. Effectively, it allows law enforcement to plead ignorance while obviously violating the rights of the citizens. This is dangerous and harmful.
  2. Security – Qualified immunity actually makes society less safe because it allows law enforcement to operate at a much less stringent standard. Because the shield of immunity exists, it encourages officers to take more risks, leading to decreased security.
  3. Immunity is Unconstitutional – This is a tough position to take, but it can be argued that immunity creates a class of citizens treated as ‘above the law.’ This effectively violated the constitutional doctrine of equality under the law because it affords privilege to certain people. Additionally, it codifies and excuses the violation of human rights, especially with the recent supreme court decision in Pearson v. Callahan which permits local courts to more easily dismiss claims brought against law enforcement.

Negative

  1. Rule of Law – Society breaks down without immunity. Law enforcement would be crippled in modern American society if immunity protection was limited. It would allow criminals to wreak havoc while law enforcement suffered the battles in court to protect themselves and justify their actions.
  2. Categorical Imperative – The question being asked is whether or not a person should be liable for damages caused in the course of performing their work. Taken to its universal moral conclusion, an affirmative answer creates a world in which law enforcement basically no longer exists. This is not a world we would want to live in.
  3. Security – Immunity allows police officers to do their jobs more effectively and creates a more secure society. As security is the primary purpose of law enforcement, it should be prioritized.

That’s it, hope that helps! Good luck!

24 Replies to “Resolved: The United States ought to limit qualified immunity for police officers.”

  1. “[I]ts lack of specificity also makes for a terrible debate. This could have been phrased much more appropriately as something like, ‘When in conflict, an individual’s constitutional rights ought to take priority over effective law enforcement.'”

    A topic about a specific legal doctrine isn’t specific enough, so the solution is to eviscerate any historical or legal context whatsoever?

    How would one even negate the value of constitutional rights in the abstract? The relevant legal question is what the standards should be for remedy, which the current topic addresses effectively.

    1. Hi John,

      If you read the full content of the post, the lack of specificity I criticize is actually on the method of limiting immunity, not the fact that the resolution is talking about the specific legal doctrine itself. Also, contrary to what you say, removing the historical and context does actually add specificity in this case. Abstracting the principles involved specifies the central clash or moral question in the debate, which allows for a more appropriately focused and fruitful discourse.

      There are many ways to negate the value of constitutional rights. A brief examination of the history of the U.S. Constitution will show that it is not an absolute and unassailable document.

      You’re right that the relevant legal question is about what would make a good standard for remedy, but that is not the question the resolution asks. The resolution asks whether or not the current standard should be adjusted. It asks this question very poorly not only because the question itself is the wrong one to be asking since it removes the more relevant moral examination involved in the issue, but also because it fails to specify how such a limitation could occur.

    1. Hey Balage,

      I’m not sure what you mean by K debate. Do you mean a kritik case? I don’t give out cases on the blog. If you mean a kritik position, then I’d say I mention that the resolution can be criticized because qualified immunity is already limited. Let me know if I can clarify further.

  2. Hey there, I know you don’t give out cases on the blog. But do you somewhere else? I’d like to know, I’m having trouble writing a case for this.

    1. Nope, sorry, I don’t just give out cases. Part of our coaching services include teaching you case writing and working with you on resolutions if that’s something you’re interesting in.

  3. According to all known laws
    of aviation,

    there is no way a bee
    should be able to fly.

    Its wings are too small to get
    its fat little body off the ground.

    The bee, of course, flies anyway

    because bees don’t care
    what humans think is impossible.

    Yellow, black. Yellow, black.
    Yellow, black. Yellow, black.

  4. Hey there! I’m new to the debate world and I just wanted to thank you for posting such helpful insight. It summarized some of my frustrations while going in-depth with areas that I was struggling with. I also appreciate the fact that you don’t just hand out information and do people’s work for them. I will be reading all your future posts from now on.

    1. Hi Crystal,

      I don’t give out cards or evidence on the blog. I encourage students to do their own research. Also, don’t focus so much on finding a card. Focus on learning about the topic. Read research studies, articles, books, etc… and find your own evidence through studying.

  5. Hi Ace! I was wondering if you could explain out your categorical imperative framework a little more. I thought the Categorical Imperative viewed all actors as equal. In that cases wouldn’t “Should we make police officers liable for their actions?” become “Should people be liable for their actions?” I really like the idea, and it definitely seems logical, but I’ve failed to find anything proving that the Categorical Imperative can apply to just one group, like that of police. Any advice is greatly appreciated!

    1. Hi Matt,

      Great question. You’re right that the categorical imperative does essentially treat all actors as equal because any moral claim needs to be universalized. The question, however, is not whether or not people should be held liable for their actions. Rather, the question is whether or not people should be held liable for damages caused while performing their work. It is reasonable to say that if we lived in a world where everyone was liable for all those damages, then people would scarcely be able to perform their jobs. Doctors, lawyers, construction works, etc….would all be screwed. In fact, we have specific legal protections in place in the U.S. so that people aren’t liable for certain consequences which occur in their line of work.

      I hope that answers your question!

  6. Thanks Ace, I really appreciate the speedy replies. I developed a framework which I think is defensible, the only part i’m having trouble with is defending the moral question of liability while performing a job. In most cases it would make sense to have individuals be liable for the outcome of their actions, yet we know that can be dangerous for law enforcement. Is their a better way to phrase that question to make a more defensible argument on the negation? Once again, much appreciated, I’m so close to having this framework set, I just once again need your help clarifying the message for me.

    1. Hi Matt,

      If you’re using the categorical imperative as your framework, then no, there isn’t another way to phrase the question. You have to universalize it as we discussed previously. However, it’s possible to argue that, when universalized, this principle creates a universe that we don’t want to live in. If people in all occupations are held liable for all the damages that they cause, then society will basically stop.

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