Would Derek Chauvin receive qualified immunity for killing George Floyd?

Benjamin Crump, an attorney who represents Floyd’s family, plans to file a lawsuit under that statute. Given the relevant precedents in the 8th Circuit, which includes Minnesota, it is by no means a surefire winner. The uncertainty speaks volumes about the leeway that courts tend to give cops in excessive force cases and the extent to which the doctrine of qualified immunity, which bars claims under 42 USC 1983 when the rights police allegedly violated were not “clearly established,” shields them from liability for outrageous conduct.

Chauvin, assisted by two other officers who also face criminal charges, kneeled on Floyd’s neck while he was handcuffed and restrained in a prone position. The autopsy report from the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office describes the cause of death as “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression.” An independent autopsy commissioned by Floyd’s family said he died from “mechanical asphyxiation.” Both reports agreed that the manner of death was homicide.

In two recent cases with broadly similar facts—a handcuffed detainee who died while restrained in a prone position by several officers—the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit blocked claims under 42 USC 1983. Those cases may not be dispositive, since both involved detainees who were actively resisting. Although Chauvin and the other officers said Floyd initially resisted their attempts to put him in a squad car, he was under control and posed no apparent threat to them while Chauvin was kneeling on his neck. But the 8th Circuit does not seem to have previously addressed a situation quite like that, and the lack of sufficiently specific precedent is enough to trigger qualified immunity.