State seeks end to police immunity from prosecution

County sheriffs, police associations assembled a united front against bill

By Morgan Lee
Associated Press

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A bill that would end police immunity from prosecution in New Mexico to allow civil rights lawsuits in state court cleared its last major hurdle with Senate approval shortly after midnight on Wednesday, as Democratic legislators responded to concerns and protests about police brutality and accountability.

The bill addresses violations of state civil rights guarantees ranging from racial discrimination to illegal search and seizure and freedom of speech violations. It would apply not only to state and local police agencies but also most local governments including school districts, allowing damage awards of up to $2 million against public employers, while waving any individual liability.

The Senate endorsed the bill 26-15, with all Republicans and Democratic Sen. George Muñoz of Gallup in opposition. House concurrence sent the bill to a supportive Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

The legislation advanced days after Minneapolis agreed to pay $27 million to settle a civil lawsuit from George Floyd’s family over the Black man’s death in police custody last year, with jury selection underway in the related murder trial of a former police officer.

New Mexico’s county sheriffs, police associations and insurance authorities for local governments assembled a united front against the bill from leading Democratic state legislators including House Speaker Brian Egolf and Rep. Georgene Louis, a tribal government attorney running for a vacant congress seat in Albuquerque.

The bill has attracted attention and support beyond New Mexico from police-reform advocates including the co-founders of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and the conservative-backed nonprofit group Americans for Prosperity.

Last-hour amendments would require a review of plaintiff’s attorney fees by a judge with no payout for baseless claims.

Republican state senators blasted the bill as an affront to police that would soak local taxpayers, with no guarantee of better policing.

Sen. Craig Brandt, a former public school board member in Rio Rancho, said taxpayers will be caught in the middle between union-backed public employees and plaintiffs in civil right suits.

“This bill doesn’t do anything to address the problem of public employees who violate the law,” he said. “It’s just a slap in the face to all the officers in our state.”

The bill, titled the ¨New Mexico Civil Rights Act,” builds on recommendations from a commission chartered last year by the Legislature and Lujan Grisham amid nationwide protests over police brutality and racial injustice.

Sen. Joseph Cervantes, a co-sponsor of the final legislation, noted that federal civil rights claims allow for unlimited financial damage awards, often in faraway courts. He says state courts would bring swifter justice at a lower price tag, closer to home.

Seeking Senate approval, Cervantes invoked nationwide outrage over the videotaped death last year of Floyd in Minneapolis.

“The horror of that video caused us as a country to once again reexamine and reevaluate our civil rights and our justice system,” he said.

Federal authorities in 2014 issued a scathing report in response to a series of deadly police shootings in the city of Albuquerque that pointed to patterns of excessive force, constitutional violations and a lack of training and oversight of its officers.

The Albuquerque Police Department began implementing reforms years ago under a prior administration as part of a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department.