The legal doctrine of qualified immunity, originating decades ago, serves as a safeguard for government officials facing lawsuits alleging violations of constitutional rights. Initially, the Supreme Court emphasized that this doctrine should not be a “license to lawless conduct.” However, state courts have frequently interpreted qualified immunity in a manner that allows officials to evade legal actions, even for actions far beyond the scope of their authority.
I learned about qualified immunity issue years ago, the hard way, when I was a small business operator whose environmental activist activities exposed bad behavior by local government officials. A grand jury indicted an elected official and a civilian business owner co-conspirator for their involvement in a conspiracy to “take me out”. The civilian co-conspirator was charged with attempted vehicular manslaughter in the attack and took a plea deal to avoid prosecution and possible jail. But criminal charges against the politician were not pursued, partly due to concerns surrounding the qualified immunity doctrine. Instead, civil charges were filed against both the local government and the politician. To avoid the risk of a trial, the insurance company representing the local government opted to settle the civil claim. Unfortunately, this resulted in a loss of years of earnings for me, while the politician completely evaded accountability.
Recent events have brought this topic back into the spotlight. Former President Trump sought to leverage the immunity doctrine to dismiss criminal charges against him for acts committed during his presidency. The ruling clarified that a former official can face prosecution in both criminal and civil courts after leaving office, notwithstanding any statute of limitations on the claims. This revelation was previously unforeseen from my perspective.
Regrettably, it appears that elected officials continue to frequently engage in criminal activities that hurt individuals and small businesses. Public prosecutors have been either very slow or reluctant to act. Until now, I believed that individuals or small business owners had limited recourse. We can cooperate with public prosecutors who are investigating the crime but cannot pursue civil claims. I have provided witness statements in multiple cases at the request of prosecutors, but elected officials were never held accountable. That has always felt wrong to me. As a small business owner, my primary method of defense against politicians’ crimes is to build strong alliances with other politicians and powerful community embers. Twice since then I was awarded a New Jersey Joint Legislative Commendation (grainy photo above) for business activities as part of this defense strategy.
I am eager to read legal commentary on the potential impact of this latest ruling on the liability of former elected officials who committed crimes during their time in office.