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New Mexico Lawmakers Propose Cap on Damages in Police Accountability Bill

2021-02-09 15:42:01
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A bill that would strip police officers of immunity from civil rights cases in the state court is being rewritten to limit potential damages to $ 2 million, in a concession to critics who warned of dire financial consequences for local governments and taxpayers.

Bill sponsor and state representative Georgene Louis of Albuquerque announced on Friday the revisions to the bill that would also waive personal liability in lawsuits against police and other government officials for violations of a range of civil rights under the state constitution.

New Mexico, the state with the largest percentage of Latino residents in the nation, routinely ranks first or second among states for annual killings per capita by police, according to a national database maintained by The Washington Post .

"If we are to restore trust between government actors and the communities they serve, we must provide opportunities for accountability," said Louis.

The proposal builds on recommendations from a civil rights commission, which was chartered by the legislature and Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham in June when protests over police brutality and racial injustice swept the nation and New Mexico's largest city.

A minority report by four members of the Civil Rights Commission, including Republican Senator Steve Neville, warned that the recommended changes would financially punish local government and taxpayers and enrich civil rights lawyers, without necessarily resolving police misconduct.

At the same time, the conservative nonprofit Americans for Prosperity Foundation advocates the reforms as a much-needed measure of accountability in the criminal justice system. The group is linked to the main political organization backed by billionaire Charles Koch, whose organizations have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to support Republican candidates and conservative policies.

Retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Bosson led the committee with a majority recommendation to rein in "qualified immunity" for government officials in the name of protecting individual constitutional rights, from free speech to gun rights.

Bosson said on Friday that he previously removed the commission from punitive damages and that the cap on all damages should allay ongoing financial concerns.

“The two biggest concerns they had at the time have been addressed,” he said.

Democratic House chairman Brian Egolf describes financial objections as a distraction to avoid accountability for civil rights violations to police and local government.

"Some of these local governments are talking about charges because they don't want to talk about the people whose rights have been trampled," said Egolf, a Santa Fe attorney. Their claims are being thrown out of court because of a legally fabricated doctrine of qualified immunity. It was created to suppress civil rights claims made by African Americans in the 1960s. "

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