Critics worry civil rights invoice asks an excessive amount of of law enforcement | Legislature | New Mexico Legislative Session

Peter Simonson calls House Bill 4 a “bill for the masses” that creates accountability for government agencies in protecting constitutional rights.

“The intent is to give us in New Mexico an opportunity to seek some form of redress for mistakes made by civil servants or public employees,” said Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico.

However, local government and law enforcement officials argue that the proposed civil rights law, which would allow individuals alleging violations of the New Mexico Bill of Rights, to bring lawsuits in state courts, even with the addition of $ 2 an enormous tax burden could have capped millions in damages for a plaintiff.

They claim that the repeal of a legal doctrine known as qualified immunity, which is often used to protect officials from personal liability for actions in the workplace, would not only escalate costs, but also weaken agencies and affect their ability, by the measure to attract new employees.

Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza said he feared civil rights suits “put many smaller departments and counties at risk”.

Mora County Sheriff Amos Espinoza said the effects of the law could be “devastating” to his county and community, potentially leading to the Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

A New Mexico State Police sergeant who heads the union and represents agency officials was far sharper in his criticism last week, accusing Democratic lawmakers of suggesting HB 4 and other police-related measures of “attacking law enforcement personally “.

Sgt.Jose Carrasco posted a 15-minute video of HB 4 and its sponsors being blown up and a bill by Democratic Senator Linda Lopez of Albuquerque proposing major law enforcement reforms, including restrictions on the use of physical violence by officials.

Carrasco noted the death of New Mexico State Police Officer Darian Jarrott, who was shot dead in a traffic obstruction in southern New Mexico, and the dangers the officers face.

Mendoza also opposes Lopez’s Senate Bill 227, which he believes is “too far to the left” of federal standards for the use of force.

“I think, as it is written, it values ​​the life of someone who is likely to refuse legitimate orders and values ​​their rights over those of the police officer,” Mendoza said.

“I think law enforcement officers are less proactive and more reactive, which means they respond to service calls after the crime is committed or after someone has been injured,” he added.

While SB 227 has not yet been heard by the committee, HB 4 has found its way to the floor of the house.

Qualified Immunity Debate

Both measures are largely due to the increased focus on police brutality and racial justice in May last year following the controversial death of George Floyd, a black man killed in police custody in Minneapolis.

HB 4 came as a recommendation from the state’s new Civil Rights Commission, created by lawmakers in June to investigate violations of the state’s constitutional rights and the use of qualified immunity as a legal defense for law enforcement officers accused of placing a border in a state having exceeded leads the nation into fatal police shootouts.

According to the Washington Post, 16 people were killed by law enforcement officers in New Mexico in 2020 and three people were killed in 2021.

State court records indicate that in 2020 eight lawsuits were filed against law enforcement in the state – most alleging faulty battery, assault, or neglect – as well as 14 against the state Department of Justice and ten against local detention facilities.

Simonson said lifting qualified immunity would significantly change the way civil proceedings against law enforcement agencies are brought to justice.

“Many cases are thrown out of court for a qualified immunity decision, which often has little to do with the actual insolence of the injustice you have suffered,” he said.

But law enforcement officers who spoke about the measure agreed in their opposition to repealing the doctrine they said was problematic to their profession.

Mendoza said the provision was unnecessary.

“It’s called qualified immunity because you need to qualify for immunity,” said the sheriff. “It’s not something where as a law enforcement officer you are immune.”

San Miguel County Sheriff Chris Lopez said the loss of qualified immunity could deter potential recruits “for fear of losing their personal assets.”

However, the bill in its current form would only allow claims to be made against agencies and not against individuals.

Santa Fe Police Chief Andrew Padilla and Deputy Police Chief Ben Valdez did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the legislation. The Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office, Taos County Sheriff’s Office, and Albuquerque Police Department also made no comments.

State Police chief Robert Thornton said his agency was already working to hold officers accountable. He said there was regular review of what he called strict guidelines “to ensure we are following generally accepted best practices relating to the safety of the public and our officials.”

A difficult balance

The objection to HB 4 arose almost immediately after a first draft was introduced, mainly because of the potential cost.

In a public meeting the day after the committee’s first hearing in late January, Santa Fe County officials raised concerns about the risk of rising insurance tariffs and the lack of a limit on how much money a jury could award a plaintiff in damages.

Santa Fe County Commissioner Hank Hughes called it “a very poorly written bill for what it is trying to achieve”.

Grace Philips, an attorney for the New Mexico Association of Counties, said there was a gap between “what people hope and dream, what this bill will do and what it will actually do.” She noted that the tort of the State lawsuits may be brought against government agencies using the Claims Act.

“What this law does is make claims more expensive than mainly because it adds legal fees to what is already recoverable,” said Philips.

Simonson and other proponents said there was little evidence that HB 4 was as financially damaging as some local government officials fear.

“This is about protecting all New Mexicans,” said civil rights attorney Maureen Sanders. “The tax impact will be zero if there are no constitutional violations.”

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, and other sponsors revised the bill in response to some of the criticisms by including the $ 2 million cap in damages, an option for individual government officials or officials to sue repealed and a three-year period of limitation for claims.

Egolf said lawmakers are “working to strike a balance between New Mexicans’ needs to have access to justice in a state court and the concerns raised by counties, cities and state agencies.”

However, the changes may not be enough to address these concerns.

Lopez, the San Miguel County sheriff, said there needs to be “a lot more review” and discussion of the bill, and law enforcement should be included in the conversation.

“Every time you want to create new legislation, you really have to understand what you are trying to achieve or fix,” Lopez said. “I think you need to be aware of the implications that proposed legislation can have if we can adequately perform our duties and services to the community, especially what is expected of us.”

Alternative solutions?

Many critics said that if lawmakers want to increase law enforcement accountability, they should instead focus on efforts to improve police training and enforce rules on official wrongdoing.

Philips said the solution was “strong, state-of-the-art training from the Law Enforcement Academy”.

Mendoza, a member of the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy board of directors, said the panel was “lagging” and “not very effective” because it was insufficiently staffed to handle complaints against officials.

“I think some of the resources, money, and legislation can be used for training and giving the Law Enforcement Academy’s board the teeth they need to make sure misconduct is properly reported in a timely manner,” said the sheriff.

Santa Fe County Commissioner Anna Hamilton fears that HB 4 may actually hamper efforts to improve law enforcement training by increasing costs for the authorities.

Law enforcement officials also suggested that lawmakers focus more on allocating resources to mental health and substance abuse programs to help people who are often most vulnerable to police violence.

“A lot of the people we deal with are usually drug or mental health related and there is nothing these people can rely on,” Espinoza said.

Egolf countered that the state “has financed more training and support for law enforcement for years”, but still faces problems.

“We have encouraged local jurisdictions to use federal grants … to improve law enforcement training,” he said. “They are not always used, which is frustrating for me and others in the legislature that we allocate funds for training and equipment and these are not used and not requested.

“But the fact is, House Bill 4 is about much, much more than law enforcement,” he said.

Simonson also stressed that the bill aims to address issues that go well beyond police violence.

“Ultimately, the Bill of Rights covers a wide range of different types of rights, from freedom of the press, freedom of religion to appropriate procedural rights,” he said. “She would give the New Mexicans the opportunity to do that.” ensure that these rights are protected by the state constitution. “

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