February 12, 2018

Committee blocks bill shielding law enforcement officers


A legislative committee on Sunday tabled a bill that could have extended greater legal immunity to law enforcement officers accused of wrongdoing, snubbing a proposal touted by Gov. Susana Martinez amid heightened scrutiny of police misconduct in Albuquerque and beyond.

Critics of House Bill 279 pointed to what the Department of Justice has called a pattern of excessive force by officers at the Albuquerque Police Department and the death just last year of a 6-year-old boy in a car crash involving an officer at the agency, contending there is plenty of reason to be wary of legislation that could make law enforcement less accountable.

In an interview with The Albuquerque Journal before the legislative session, the governor said lawsuit settlements were being awarded to what she characterized as “crooks and thieves who are hurt or injured by police officers who are doing their job.”

But that comment came against the backdrop of ongoing controversy surrounding misconduct at the Albuquerque Police Department, which is in the midst of an ongoing reform process overseen by the federal government.

Meanwhile, the city government there has paid millions of dollars over the last several years to settle lawsuits, including $5 million for the family of James Boyd, a homeless man killed by police during a standoff in 2014.

And more broadly, the state has in recent years had among the highest rates of people killed by police.

“This bill would move us in the wrong direction,” Steven Robert Allen, director of public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, told the committee.

NM SAFE, a coalition of criminal justice reform organizations including the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops and the American Civil Liberties Union, gave the bill an F in its ratings of public safety legislation this session.

The group said House Bill 279 would have made it much more difficult to hold officers accountable for negligent behavior that injures other people. And trial lawyers contend the state’s caps on the money that can be won through suing the police already are draconian.

The House State Government, Indian and Veterans Affairs Committee tabled the bill, sponsored by Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, on a party line vote of 4-2.

But backers countered the measure would not have protected police who were negligent or ignored their own policies and training, instead arguing it would merely bring the state in line with federal law while avoiding the second-guessing of law enforcement that some argue has hindered officers.

“At its most basic level, this protects against unrealistic second-guessing of police judgments in the field,” Laura White-Davis, director of the General Services Department’s Risk Management Division, told lawmakers.

The bill mirrored some of the federal standards for bringing a lawsuit against law enforcement.

In federal court, police can claim qualified immunity, requiring plaintiffs to show an officer violated a clearly established constitutional right. And then, the plaintiff must show that a reasonable officer should have known the officer’s actions were unlawful.
Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewboxford.