New York is now the first city in the country to end qualified immunity for police officers. The measure was passed as part of a package of police reform bills. The decades-old protection has prevented officers from being sued or liable for misconduct.
New Mexico recently became the second state to ban qualified immunity. New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the New Mexico Civil Rights Act—also known as House Bill 4—advancing fair and equal treatment under the law last month. The legislation effectively bans qualified immunity—a judicial doctrine that shields state actors, including law enforcement officials, from liability, even when they knowingly break the law. New Mexico is now the second state to ban qualified immunity following Colorado, which enacted legislation to end the practice in June 2020. Under New Mexico’s new law, a person has the right to sue the state, a city, or a county, when his rights under the state’s constitution have been violated, such as in cases involving police misconduct. With the passing of this law, residents of New Mexico will finally be able to hold police officials who engage in wrongdoing accountable.
Police officers rarely face criminal charges or even internal disciplinary measures when they engage in misconduct. When misconduct goes unchecked, officers may continue to abuse their powers. Often, when police misconduct is discovered in one case, several more instances of misconduct committed by the same officer are uncovered in other cases. For example, several convictions in cases investigated by former Chicago officer Jon Burge and his team have been overturned due to repeated misconduct that went unpunished for many years. Nearly 37 percent of exoneration cases since 1989 involved police misconduct the National Registry of Exonerations reported.
“Eliminating the legal doctrine of qualified immunity not only provides financial justice to victims of police abuse, including people who have been wrongfully convicted, but it also incentivizes police agencies to properly hire, train, and supervise law enforcement to prevent abuses from occurring in the first place,” said Rebecca Brown, the Innocence Project’s director of policy. “While Congress must end qualified immunity nationwide, many states—recognizing the urgency of this reform—are taking action on their own.” By passing the New Mexico Civil Rights Act, the state has adopted a reform that assures accountability while preventing harm—a major step toward equal justice for all.
From where did qualified immunity come? The doctrine of qualified immunity holds that judges and juries should not second-guess split-second decisions by police. The 1989 case Graham v. Connor said the reasonableness of the use of force should be judged “from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”
About one thousand people are killed by police each year in the United States, a number that is much higher than in other developed countries.