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Insurance, Courts Protect Cops from Liability

by Dale Chappell

Lots of lawsuits get filed against law enforcement, but very few result in a payout. Police have an ever-growing shield called “qualified immunity” and decades of court decisions to hide behind. And even when there is a payout, it is not groundbreaking.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld the broad protection qualified immunity offers law enforcement. The Court, once again, held that qualified immunity “gives ample room for mistaken judgments by protecting all but the plainly incompetent [officers] or those who knowingly violate the law.” Kisela v. Hughes, 138 S. Ct. 1148 (2018). It is a high standard, lawyers admit, and no defined criteria exist.

Police again can thank the courts for decisions that give them a loophole to get out of lawsuits. Say police use excessive force and crush a man’s pelvis during an arrest, as in the case of Brandon Anderson, who had his pelvis crushed by Bristol, Tennessee, police after he gave them a fake name. There’s an easy and virtually foolproof way to ensure he cannot sue—charge him with resisting arrest, even if he didn’t do so. When Anderson sued, police invoked the “Heck Rule,” which bars a criminal defendant from winning a civil lawsuit if it would “necessarily imply the invalidity of his conviction or sentence.” Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994). Because a jury had found Anderson guilty of resisting arrest, he could not sue the police.

Last year, Bristol, Tennessee, paid $62,971 for liability insurance, and its twin city, Bristol, Virginia, paid $42,997. Yet the payouts over the last five years amounted to just $205,000. Half of that amount went to one litigant, who was wrongfully jailed after an identity mix-up, and the next highest payout of $50,000 went to Prison Legal News magazine, which successfully sued the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office for blocking its publication from prisoners. Insurance covered all those expenses, and police never felt a thing.

More importantly, none of the officers who caused the payouts felt a hit to their wallets. They got free lawyers, and insurance paid the bill if they lost. They felt no fallout from their actions. 


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