Senate passes contentious civil rights invoice following late-night debate | Native Information

A hotly debated proposal that would open the door to civil rights suits against government agencies in state courts and waive “qualified immunity” as legal defense in such cases was passed by the New Mexico Senate early Wednesday.

The proposed New Mexico Civil Rights Act comes after nearly a year of civil unrest following multiple fatal incidents of police brutality that rocked the nation and sparked calls for reform.

“I think we all watched in horror for eight minutes and 46 seconds the knee of a policeman on George Floyd’s neck as he told the policeman he couldn’t breathe and other policemen stood and watched,” said Senator Joseph Cervantes, D – Las Cruces refers to an unarmed black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis last year.

“The horror of this video has led us as a country to re-examine and reassess our civil rights and our judicial system, as well as our interaction between our society and the protection of those rights in government,” added Cervantes, Senate sponsor of the law.

The vote between 26 and 15, which took place shortly after midnight, was largely partisan. Senator George Muñoz, a more moderate Democrat from Gallup, sided with the Republicans when he opposed the proposal, which narrowly missed the House of Representatives last month. The House must approve an amended version of the bill before going to the governor’s desk.

The controversial proposal would eliminate a doctrine known as qualified immunity as a legal defense against civil rights complaints filed against government agencies in the state district court. The doctrine protects government employees, including the police, from personal liability under federal law when workers violate people’s constitutional rights.

Lawsuits are currently being filed in federal court for violations of US constitutional law. House Bill 4 would provide a means of filing similar claims in a state court under the New Mexico Bill of Rights.

A revised version of the bill limits the damage to $ 2 million per claimant for each “event”.

Republican Senate officials opposed the move, calling it law enforcement, saying it would lead to increased costs for government agencies that would ultimately be passed on to taxpayers.

“This bill does nothing to address the issue of public employees violating individual rights,” said Senator Craig Brandt of R-Rio Rancho. “It’s just a slap in the face for all civil servants in our state. All we’ve done in this bill is draft lawyer enrichment bill.”

While New Mexico state police officers have been present at the roundhouse since the beginning of the 60-day legislature in January, they rarely listen to the floor debate. At least three officers were on guard in the gallery when the legislature took up the matter.

Cervantes urged lawmakers to “reject some of the rhetoric heard in the Chamber,” calling it a tactic to share it.

“It’s just a distraction trying to pretend we’re against the police,” he said.

Republicans said government concerns about higher insurance tariffs and increased liability risk are real.

“We’ve been here for a long time, and cities and counties call and say, ‘Please don’t do this to us. Please don’t do this to us.’ Because if we do this to them, we will do it to the people of New Mexico, “said Senator Bill Sharer of R-Farmington.

“We don’t want to deprive anyone of their civil rights, but neither do we want taxpayers of any jurisdiction to just put money into this endless pit of lawsuits,” he added.

Senator Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said New Mexico would create an “abyss” with its civil rights law.

“We have the most liberal liability laws anywhere except Washington, DC, and what we didn’t have has now been added,” he said. “It’s going to open up areas of liability that we’ve never seen before. And our counties and cities, our highway divisions, every government agency we have, will, I believe, be subject to things they’ve never thought of. “

At the start of Tuesday’s nightly hearing, the Senate approved a number of changes to the bill, including the removal of mandatory attorney fees, a major concern of local governments. The proposal would allow a dominant party to receive legal fees, but only at the discretion of a judge.

Other changes would require notification to a government agency of a possible right to prosecution within a year and rule out incidents that occurred prior to July 2021.

“The mandatory fee provision I believe is a major concession to local governments who have raised various concerns about this bill,” said Senator Jacob Candelaria, Albuquerque, D-Albuquerque.

Cervantes said the changes reflect “the ongoing efforts of the company [sponsors] to try to respond sensibly to concerns from city and county governments. “

City and county government officials across the state have come out the loudest against the bill, saying it could lead to higher insurance rates and costly billing for employee misconduct, as well as forcing authorities to divert resources from essential services to lawsuits.

They also claim that the bill does nothing about the type of wrongdoing it seeks to prevent.

“If we take punitive action at the back end, the financial guillotine at the back end won’t solve the problem,” AJ Forte, executive director of the New Mexico Municipal League, told lawmakers last month.

The bill is sponsored by three lawyers: House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, Rep. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque and Cervantes.

“Let me take a moment … to let this panel know that I have been a lawyer for 30 years and have never made Section 1983 civil rights [which allows for lawsuits against government over civil rights violations] against a law enforcement officer, “said Cervantes at the beginning of the hearing.” This is not my practice or area of ​​law, and I have no conflict of interest or financial reason to introduce this legislation. “

The measure sparked an ethics complaint against Egolf claiming that he could benefit financially from the measure if it became law. Egolf described the complaint as unfounded. The state ethics committee has indicated that two out of three charges in the complaint are likely to be dismissed, but a third is still under investigation.

The law would apply to a large number of public agencies, from municipalities to school districts. Acequia associations and soil and water protection areas are among the few organizations that would be exempt.

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.

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