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Immune Deficiency 

Legal quirk often gives sheriffs free rein

If the average guy on the street beat someone else senseless for no particular reason and the victim could prove it, the odds are that a jury would award the victim a large sum of money. But when the folks allegedly doing the beating are sheriff's deputies, and when the person to whom they answer is the sheriff, then legally speaking, the rules of the game are different. It all goes back to a concept in English common law called sovereign immunity that essentially says that government officials can't be sued for their actions, no matter how much damage they cause. Because most states, including North Carolina, have statutes that say that the common law is enforced unless changed or abrogated, and because the NC legislature has never passed a law abolishing sovereign immunity, it still applies here.

Further complicating matters are the various shades of sovereign immunity. In one prisoner beating case filed against Pendergraph and his employees, their attorney argued that they are entitled to qualified immunity on the federal claims against them, public official immunity on the state law claims against them, and barred from recovering any damages under state law by sovereign immunity.

Since sovereign and other official types of immunities are afforded to state officials, sheriffs around the country started arguing that they were state officials and thus entitled to immunity from lawsuits related to their professional performances. The issue is still undecided in North Carolina, where some judges have ruled that sheriffs are state officials and others have ruled they're not.

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