Subcommittee supports reform measure to dismantle ‘qualified immunity’ shield for bad police officers

New law would remove police officer immunity from lawsuits

By: - February 23, 2021 2:46 pm
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A Louisiana House subcommittee on Tuesday voted to support a police-reform recommendation that would dismantle the qualified immunity that blocks lawsuits against police officers who wrongfully kill or injure citizens. It is perhaps the most critical of the 18 recommendations being submitted by the legislature’s Police Training, Screening and De-escalation Task Force chaired by Sen. Cleo Fields, (D-Baton rouge).

The House Qualified Immunity Subcommittee of House Civil Law and Procedure voted unanimously to support the task force’s recommendation that “No element of qualified immunity shall be available to law enforcement officers as a defense to liability for claims brought under state law for wrongful death, physical injury, or personal injury inflicted by law enforcement officers through any use of physical force in a manner determined by a finder of fact in a judicial proceeding to be unreasonable.” 

“It’s protecting too many acts that should not be protected, is that fair to say?” Rep. Greg Miller R-Norco, asked LSU law professor Raymond Diamond about qualified immunity.  Diamond, one of the 25 members on the task force, agreed.  

The Louisiana Sheriffs Association and the Fraternal Order of Police — two powerful political forces in the state — expressed cautious support for changing the immunity rules. Representatives from each organization served on the task force.

Fraternal Order of Police General Counsel Donovan Livaccari asked lawmakers to be mindful of any unforeseen consequences the proposal might have, such as a negative impact on recruiting.

“It’s something that we have to keep an eye on closely,” Livaccari said, adding that the union does not oppose the language as it is currently written. 

Qualified immunity exists under both federal and many state laws. In Louisiana, qualified immunity renders police officers and other public employees immune from lawsuits when they commit misconduct, violate someone’s rights or break the law. Though it can apply to many government employees, it is almost exclusively used by police officers.

Diamond said qualified immunity stems from Reconstruction Era federal court decisions that deliberately undermined civil rights legislation and the 14th Amendment’s promise of equal protection under the law. The task force proposes to limit qualified immunity under state law to hold police accountable for misconduct. Allowing civil lawsuits against individual police officers would make officers more conscious of their actions and behavior, Diamond said.

“It’s not just a matter of good government,” Diamond said. “It’s also a matter of the pocketbook.”

The proposal would apply only to lawsuits in state courts and would not affect qualified immunity under federal law. And because police officers are often indemnified or insured by the agencies or municipalities they work for, lawsuits against officers would likely extend, at least financially, to those agencies. In other words, the police departments or cities would likely pay for the damages.

“Yes, this would mean that various jurisdictions would be subject to tort suits,” Diamond said, “but what it would also mean is that those jurisdictions would have more of an incentive to police their own police.”

The Police Training, Screening and De-escalation Task Force was formed last year soon after  George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by a White police officer in that city. The task force includes lawmakers from both parties, representatives from law enforcement, professionals, academics, activists and other community stakeholders. 

The qualified immunity proposal is expected to be shaped into a bill that will be heard during the legislative session in April.

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Wes Muller
Wes Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the years since then, he has freelanced for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and worked on staff at the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. He also taught English as an adjunct instructor at Baton Rouge Community College. Much of his journalism has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and coverage of municipal and state government. He has received recognitions including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus and a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his two sons and his wife, who is also a journalist.

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