Qualified immunity police reform clears early hurdle in House

Bill would dismantle police officer immunity against lawsuits

By: - May 3, 2021 8:30 pm
Republicans block qualified immunity reform

People gather to protest against the shooting of Alton Sterling on July 10, 2016 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Alton Sterling was shot by a police officer in front of the Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge on July 5th, leading the Department of Justice to open a civil rights investigation. (Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)

A bill that would dismantle qualified immunity for police officers, a critical component of the Louisiana Legislature’s police reform agenda, advanced out of the House Committee on Civil Law and Procedure on Monday. It will head to the House floor for debate.

House Bill 609, co-authored by Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, and Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, would limit the current qualified immunity statute, which has long shielded law officers from being sued even when they wrongfully kill or injure citizens. The bill emerged as a recommendation of the legislature’s Police Training, Screening and De-escalation Task Force, a 25-member panel established in response to national outcry at the 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

The task force was comprised of members from a wide spectrum of the community, including university professors, police officers, social workers and others with ties to the criminal justice system. The bill is supported by nonprofits such as Together Louisiana, Louisiana Progress Action, Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, Voice of the Experienced, Louisiana District Attorneys Association, and the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association, among others.

“It doesn’t go as far as I would want it to go, frankly, but I think we’ve got something everybody can live with, and this was passed unanimously without objection by the task force,” Jordan said.

Jack Whitehead, a Baton Rouge lawyer who represents police officers, expressed those concerns with the qualified immunity bill Monday. Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that essentially 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.

“This is nothing but grease skids liability — grease skids liability,” Whitehead said. “This doesn’t need to be in the law. Qualified immunity serves a purpose to avoid frivolous lawsuits.”

The bill states that “no element of qualified immunity shall be available to peace officers as a defense…for wrongful death, physical injury, or personal injury inflicted by peace officers through any use of physical force in a manner determined by the court to be unreasonable.”

The Civil Law and Procedure committee approved an amendment from Jordan that defines “peace officer” as any officer, employee, contract worker or volunteer for a public institution whose “duties include the making of arrests, performing of searches and seizures, or executing criminal warrants, preventing or detecting crime, or enforcing the penal, traffic, or highway laws of this state.”

According to the bill, anyone who files a lawsuit would have to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that their rights were violated.

The committee approved the bill in a 9-4 vote. 

Pointing out the “delicate balance” of the slim margin of bipartisan support for the bill, committee chairman Greg Miller, R-Norco, asked Jordan to promise not to move any amendments that would further strengthen the public’s position at the expense of police officers.

Jordan promised to park the bill if anyone amended it in a way that changed its current spirit. In return he asked that no one amend it with a “poison pill” to deliberately kill it. 

“I think this is a step toward real police reform and helping bring back the community trust with the police officer by saying that they just don’t have carte blanche to do any- and everything — that they’re held to some standards and accountability,” said Edgar Cage with Together Louisiana, a grassroots network of congregations and civic organizations.

The bill still has many big hurdles to clear before becoming law. It must next pass a vote by the entire House, and then repeat the legislative process in the Senate. If it survives both chambers, the governor can then approve or veto the bill.  

Other measures included in the police reform package and recommended by the task force include House Bill 430, which would change parts of the officer bill of rights with regards to internal investigations and Senate Bill 34, which would ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants.

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Wesley Muller
Wesley 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 following 22 years since then, he has worked as a journalist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. Much of his work has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and watchdog coverage of municipal and state government. He has received several honors and 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, a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper, and an adjunct English teacher at Baton Rouge Community College. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his teenage son and his wife, who is also a journalist.

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