February 9, 2021

New Mexico House committee advances revamped civil rights bill

Members of the House Judiciary Committee voted 8-4 to support a revamped bill that would allow New Mexicans to sue government agencies they believe have violated their civil rights. 

House Bill 4, creating a New Mexico Civil Rights Act, also would prohibit “qualified immunity” as a defense to legal claims filed against government agencies. Qualified immunity can shield law enforcement officers from being held personally liable for actions that are found to violate a person’s constitutional rights.

The bill provides a three-year statute of limitations on such court actions and allows plaintiffs to ask for compensatory, but not punitive, damages.

Based on the emotional testimony from some of the dozens of people who spoke in favor of or against the bill, the legislation is striking a personal chord. 

Proponents say too many civil rights violations go unpunished in New Mexico, where residents can file such claims in federal court, but not in the state’s system. This bill would change that.

“For everyday New Mexicans to bring their claim in a state court, with a state judge elected by their community, familiar with their community, is a much more meaningful way to access justice than pursuing a claim in federal court,” said House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, one of the sponsors of the legislation. 

Opponents said the bill will do nothing to address those offenses at the outset and pointed to other problems. 

“There’s no reform on this bill,” said  AJ Forte, executive director of the New Mexico Municipal League. “There’s nothing on the front end to stop violations from happening in the first place.”

Other critics, including private and county attorneys and the heads of police associations and departments, echoed those criticisms.

“This bill does nothing to correct police misconduct,” said Sandoval County Attorney Robin S. Hammer. She said it will drive up the cost of litigation and “do nothing for the victim.”

Egolf said the legislation is “not just about law enforcement.”

Among those calling for the action were a number of New Mexicans who told personal stories of being victims of government employees in the public school and prison systems. 

One woman who testified during the virtual hearing of the House Judiciary Committee broke down as she talked about her grief over losing her son, who died while incarcerated while serving a short term for missing a compliance meeting as part of his parole. 

“People need to be held accountable or this will never change — never,” she said, urging lawmakers to vote for the bill. “Because it continues over and over and over. We need your help.”

Another woman, who said as a child she became a victim of former public school teacher Gary Gregor — who was sentenced to more than 100 years in prison for sexually abusing and assaulting female students in his class — said the act will help hold such “monsters” accountable for their actions. 

The bill has already undergone a substantial overhaul. Late last week the sponsors of the bill announced the legislation would cap damages at $2 million, rather than the initial $4 million proposed, to allay concerns about unintended financial impacts on local governments. 

Also, the sponsors agreed to only allow legal claims under the act to be filed against government agencies, and not individual employees who work for those agencies. 

The newly formed New Mexico Civil Rights Commission, initiated just last summer, recommended the action.

However some members of that commission, in a dissenting argument, said they, too, feel the proposed act does nothing to address the violations in the first place. 

The committee took testimony and debated House Bill 4 for over four hours. The amended bill now goes to the full body of the House of Representatives to consider.