Bill to end qualified immunity for law enforcement officers in La. dies

Published: Jun. 18, 2020 at 9:16 AM CDT
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BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Lawmakers killed a proposal that would end ‘qualified immunity’ for law enforcement, a policy that makes it nearly impossible to sue an officer who’s hurt someone, even if they’ve broken the law.

To win a suit against an officer who’s killed or injured someone, the person suing must find a nearly identical incident where a court ruled against another officer.

“No two cases are exactly alike,” Baton Rouge Democrat Rep. Edmond Jordan, who wrote the bill, said. “When you bring it to that type of specificity, it becomes almost an insurmountable defense.”

Some lawsuits are dismissed under the qualified immunity doctrine before a judge can hear evidence.

“Even if a person can show they were an innocent bystander who was shot multiple times by a police officer executing a no-knock warrant on the wrong house, if there’s not already been a past judicial opinion about that specific kind of situation, then the case might be dismissed,” MacArthur Justice Center Director Jim Craig said.

Private citizens are not afforded the same protection, so Jordan’s bill would’ve stripped qualified immunity from officers who are sued for wrongful death or injury.

“We say law enforcement should be held to a higher standard, except when it comes to qualified immunity,” Jordan, an attorney who’s been involved in lawsuits against officers before, said. “We actually hold them to a lower standard than we hold the general public.”

But the bill died as members of the legislative black caucus, some emotional, watched in the packed committee room. Some family members of African Americans who were shot by Louisiana law enforcement officers attended the hearing, also.

All but two committee Republicans voted to kill the idea. Reps. Thomas Pressley and Richard Nelson voted with the Democrats.

“Qualified immunity doesn’t, in any way, prevent a bad actor from being charged, prosecuted, tried, convicted, sentenced, or punished,” Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Pineville, said, noting the doctrine only protects officers from lawsuits for damages.

But the bill’s proponents say officers are not charged with crimes as often as they should be, arguing a lawsuit provides families with another avenue to seek justice.

“They can’t depend on their local prosecutors to police this situation and they can’t depend on the police, so their only recourse, then, is in the civil courts,” Baton Rouge defense attorney, Ron Haley, said. “If you speak to a family member, money is the last thing they’re looking for.”

Law enforcement associations opposed the bill that would’ve eventually cost them more money in court. Other Republicans said stripping qualified immunity would harm good police officers and might even deter them from taking justifiable action against a criminal.

“They have to be able to enforce the laws, and how are they going to do that if every time they encounter a crime they don’t know what to do?” Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, asked. “We’re vilifying the police, who are there to serve and protect. There are bad ones, and what we have seen is horrible. We watch and it’s heartbreaking, but we cannot vilify law enforcement.”

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