La. Republicans block qualified immunity bill, setting aside months of bipartisan work

Legislation was most significant police reform measure

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)

Republicans in a Louisiana Senate committee on Tuesday blocked Rep. Edmond Jordan’s bill to limit qualified immunity for police officers whose conduct is deemed unreasonable — the legislature’s most critical police reform measure and one that was crafted over the last year by a bipartisan panel that included dozens of experts across multiple fields. 

House Bill 609, a product of the Louisiana Legislature’s bipartisan Police Training, Screening and De-escalation Task Force, passed the House last month but failed in the Senate Judiciary B Committee in a 2-4 vote. The legislation was a primary goal for Democrats and Black Caucus members this legislative session. It is unlikely it will get another chance before the session ends on June 10.

The 25-member task force was formed last summer in response to national outcry at the 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

The task force was made up of lawmakers from both parties along with 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 won the support of 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.

Until recently, the legislation was also supported by Louisiana’s Fraternal Order of Police, the largest labor union for municipal police officers in the state. Union President Darrell Basco, who served on the task force that created the bill, unexpectedly changed his position before the House floor vote on May 11. His belated opposition sparked contentious debate on a bill that, Jordan said, had previously not received a single objection as it advanced through numerous committees, subcommittees and meetings since February. The House ultimately passed the measure that night by a slim margin, 53-42.

Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that exists under both federal and many state laws. In Louisiana, it renders police officers and other public employees virtually immune from civil lawsuits when they violate certain rights or laws. Though it can apply to many government employees, it is almost exclusively used by police officers. House Bill 609 would apply only to the state’s qualified immunity law.

“We’re taking away what has been deemed as absolute immunity,” Jordan said to the committee. “(Qualified immunity) has gone far beyond what it was originally intended to do.”

Jordan explained that when police officers invoke qualified immunity as a defense to lawsuits, the court typically applies a two-part test to determine whether the lawsuit can move forward. In the first part, the court must find that the officer’s behavior was unreasonable or unconstitutional. Then, for the second part, the court must find that the officer’s unconstitutional or unreasonable behavior matches specifically with any unlawful behavior seen in a previous case that prevailed, Jordan said.

It is the second part that causes most lawsuits to be thrown out, Jordan said, because it’s almost impossible that a given situation described in a lawsuit will have a set of facts and circumstances that are identical to a previous situation described in case law.

Basco, the head of the police union, said removing qualified immunity would negatively impact the ability of officers to make split-second decisions. 

“Imagine the rank and file law enforcement officer that’s in a radio car right now that’s responding to a call,” Basco said. “If they hear that qualified immunity has been taken away from them or immunity has been taken away from them in the state of Louisiana, that’s definitely going to affect the way that they respond.”

Such claims, Jordan said, amount to misinformation or misinterpretations of the bill. He said the bill is not an “anti-police bill” but an “anti-bad-police bill.” The law was never supposed to shield police or anyone else from liability for unconstitutional behavior, but that is what qualified immunity has evolved into since it was first recognized in the 1960s, he said. 

Jordan said the bill would affect only the small percentage of bad police officers who are sued in state court for behavior that is unconstitutional. It would have no impact on federal cases or allow frivolous lawsuits to proceed.

Mike Ranatza, executive director of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association, testified in support of the legislation, telling the committee to not get caught up with any emotional claims that removing qualified immunity will take away an officer’s ability to make split-second decisions. If the bill ever became law, Ranatza said, officers would still only be liable if their behavior is deemed unconstitutional.

In a phone interview later Tuesday, Jordan said he was disappointed with the committee’s decision. Although there is little chance of the bill being revived this session, he said he would continue to push the legislation for as long as it takes.

“I think there was a lot of politics behind the scenes that played a role,” he said about the committee’s decision. 

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