New Mexico Could Be the Third State To Authorize Lawsuits Against Abusive Cops Without Qualified Immunity
The New Mexico House of Representatives this week approved a bill that would allow people to sue government agencies for violations of rights protected by the state constitution. The bill, which is based on recommendations from a state Civil Rights Commission that the legislature and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham established after George Floyd’s death last May, still needs approval by the state Senate. If it passes and Grisham signs it, New Mexico would be the third state to authorize new civil remedies for police abuse without the barrier of “qualified immunity” since Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police.
Qualified immunity, a restriction imposed by the Supreme Court, bars federal civil rights lawsuits unless they allege misconduct that violated “clearly established” law. In practice, that requirement is so formidable that it’s unclear whether former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who faces murder and manslaughter charges for killing Floyd by kneeling on his neck for more than eight minutes, could be held accountable under 42 USC 1983, which allows people to sue government officials for constitutional violations.
Defenders of qualified immunity warn that restricting or abolishing it would have a chilling effect on policing, forcing officers to constantly worry about being sued for doing their jobs. The New Mexico Civil Rights Act, like the laws that Colorado and Connecticut passed last year, addresses that concern by requiring government agencies (i.e., insurers and taxpayers), rather than individual defendants, to pay legal costs and damages. Notwithstanding that concession, every single Republican in the state House, joined by five Democrats, voted against the bill.
The bill will next be considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Its chairman, Sen. Joseph Cervantes (D–Las Cruces), said the legislation will receive “a great deal of scrutiny,” although he also said he was pleased by amendments aimed at allaying the concerns of local governments. Democrats outnumber Republicans by 27 to 15 in the Senate, so passage seems like a real possibility if the partisan split on the bill is similar to the vote in the House. Both chambers would have to approve the same version of the bill and send it to Grisham for her signature by March 20.
Colorado’s law requires indemnification of a police officer who is sued unless “the peace officer’s employer determines that the officer did not act on a good faith and reasonable belief that the action was lawful.” Connecticut requires municipalities to cover all def
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