More than 1,000 current and former professional athletes have signed a letter to Congress calling for the end of qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that the athletes say is shielding law enforcement from accountability.
NFL quarterbacks Tom Brady and Drew Brees as well as NBA head coaches Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich join a long list of athletes, coaches and front office officials from around the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball in calling for the passage of a bill proposed by Reps. Justin Amash and Ayanna Pressley.
“When police officers kill an unarmed man, when they beat a woman, or when they shoot a child, the people of this country must have a way to hold them accountable in a court of law,” the letter, released by the Players Coalition on Wednesday reads. “A legal system that does not provide such a recourse is an illegitimate one.”
In recent years, legal scholars, judges and justices on all sides of the ideological spectrum have criticized the legal doctrine known as “qualified immunity,” arguing that it is not grounded in the proper legal authorities and too often shields officials from accountability.
A potential reexamining of the doctrine comes as the United States is reeling from the recent deaths of several black Americans at the hands of the police, including George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis last month after a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. Widespread protests across the country have called for codified change in how the law treats the black community.
The Supreme Court could decide soon whether it will take a closer look at the legal doctrine, but lawmakers are seeking a remedy through Congress. Amash and Pressley introduced the legislation to end qualified immunity last week.
Amash and Pressley say that ending qualified immunity would restore Americans’ ability to obtain relief when their rights are violated. Defenders argue that it protects an officer’s ability to make a snap decision during potentially dangerous situations.
“The Supreme Court has caused irreparable harm to public trust by creating and then expanding the doctrine of qualified immunity,” the letter says. “In their grief, people have taken to the streets because for too long, their government has failed to protect them. The courts and elected officials alike have instead shielded people who caused unspeakable harm.”
Under the doctrine, an officer will not be liable even if he violated the Constitution unless it was “clearly established” by prior cases that his conduct was unconstitutional.
That requires a high bar and makes it difficult to win unless the situation is similar to a prior case with nearly identical facts. In some cases with unique fact patterns, of which there are many, officers have been granted immunity even if they have been found to have acted in violation of the Constitution.
The letter from the athletes also calls out the scene from last Monday evening, when authorities forcibly pushed out peaceful protesters ahead of President Donald Trump’s photo-op at a local church.
“There is a problem. The world witnessed it when Officer Chauvin murdered George Floyd, and the world is watching it now, as officers deploy enormous force on peaceful protestors like those who were standing outside of the White House last week,” the Players Coalition letter states.
“The time for debate about the unchecked authority of the police is over; it is now time for change.”
NFL stars Carson Wentz and Odell Beckham, Jr., signed the letter, as did retired athletes Troy Vincent, Tony Gonzalez, Bruce Smith and Tony Gwynn, Jr.