SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) – A bill that would strip police officers of immunity from civil rights lawsuits in state court is being rewritten to cap potential damage awards at $2 million, in a concession to critics who warned of dire financial consequences for local governments and taxpayers.
Bill sponsor and state Rep. Georgene Louis of Albuquerque announced the revisions Friday to the bill that would also waive personal liability in lawsuits against police and other government officials for violations of an array of civil rights under the state constitution.
The bill confronts a crucial hurdle at a hearing scheduled for Monday in the Democrat led state House.
New Mexico, the state with the largest percentage of Latino residents in the nation, routinely ranks first or second among states for per-capita annual killings by police, according to a national database maintained by The Washington Post.
“If we’re going to repair the trust between government actors and the communities they serve, we need to provide avenues for accountability,” Louis said.
The proposal builds on recommendations of a civil rights commission, chartered by the Legislature and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in June as protests over police brutality and racial injustice swept the nation and New Mexico’s largest city.
A minority report from four civil rights commission members, including Republican state Sen. Steve Neville, warned the recommended changes would financial punish local government and taxpayers – and enrich civil rights attorneys – without necessarily resolving police misconduct.
At the same time, the conservative nonprofit group Americans for Prosperity Foundation is advocating for the reforms as a sorely needed measure of accountability in the criminal justice system. The group is connected to the primary political organization supported by billionaire Charles Koch, whose organizations have spent hundreds of millions of dollars supporting Republican candidates and conservative policies.
Retired state Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Bosson led the commission in a majority recommendation to rein in “qualified immunity” for public officials in the name of protecting individual constitutional rights, from free speech to gun rights.
Bosson said Friday that he previously swayed the commission away from punitive damages and that the cap on all damage awards should address lingering financial concerns.
“The two biggest concerns that they had at the time have been addressed,” he said.
Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf describes financial objections as a distraction to avoid accountability for civil right violations in policing and local government.
“Some of these local governments are talking about costs because they don’t want to talk about the people who had their rights trampled,” said Egolf, a Santa Fe-based attorney. “You have their claims thrown out of court due to a judicially invented doctrine of qualified immunity. It was created in order to suppress civil rights claims that African-Americans had in the 1960s.”
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