February 26, 2021

Bill that would end qualified immunity heads to Senate Judiciary Committee

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A bill that would end qualified immunity as a defense in civil rights cases advanced from the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee.

HB 4, known as the New Mexico Civil Rights Act, passed without recommendation in a 5 to 3 vote along party lines. State Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, amended the bill to remove acequias, land grants and other small units of government from the definition of a public body, said Daniel Marzec, communications director for House Speaker Brian Egolf’s office.

Egolf is a co-sponsor of the bill. The lead sponsor is Rep. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque.

The bill provides individuals whose civil rights have been violated the ability to sue the governmental body for up to $2 million in civil penalties. That would include attorney’s fees.

Many counties and municipalities have said that they are concerned that they will not be able to qualify for liability insurance due to the bill.

But the bill sponsors have said that government bodies, including counties and municipalities, are already insured in the event they are sued under federal civil rights law, and there are no monetary caps for those damages.

The bill would also end qualified immunity as a legal defense in civil rights cases. Plaintiff attorneys have said that the concept of qualified immunity is a judicial one and that it has become so cumbersome as to prohibit virtually any case regarding police misconduct.

Related: New Mexico Civil Rights Act passes House

The bill was previously amended in a House committee hearing to clarify that no individual teacher, law enforcement officer or other public employee can be sued.

Social justice advocates see the bill as an important step toward racial and social justice. Louis said through a statement that the bill provides “everyday New Mexicans with a way to access justice within their communities and within state court.”

But the bill has been contentious. State Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Los Cerrillos, voted in favor of it but said she has not decided how she will vote when the bill reaches the Senate floor.

“I am uncomfortable with the bill. I want to see justice and retribution made for those who have been hurt but I think we should take this step by step,” Stefanics said.

Egolf responded Friday to an ethics violation challenge connected to the bill. During the bill hearing, Sen. David Gallegos, R-Eunice, brought up the allegation.

“I got a letter…that had a question about this, asking if this is an ethics violation, if we the Legislature will be able to profit from this bill,” Gallegos said.

Egolf, who is a lawyer, said he had already issued a statement.

“This is not a conflict. This is not a conflict, that’s all I have to say on it,” Egolf said.

The complaint was brought by a resident named Sandra Price, who did not respond to an email requesting comment. Egolf, in a legal answer to the complaint, called the allegations “frivolous,” and asked the ethics commission to dismiss the complaint.

HB 4 heads next to the Senate Judiciary Committee.