Saturday, February 12, 2022

New Mexico looks at limiting qualified immunity

Laurie Roberts writes in the USA Today

As America nears the grim milestone of its 3,000th exoneration, the causes of wrongful convictions are well understood. Sometimes a survivor misidentifies their attacker, or an incarcerated person provides false testimony in exchange for leniency. But too often, egregious police misconduct sends innocent people to prison for crimes they didn’t commit. 

From witness tampering and malfeasance in interrogations to fabricating evidence and committing perjury at trial, police misconduct contributed to 35% of known exonerations nationwide. This misconduct stole thousands of years of freedom and a lifetime of priceless memories from its victims. Yet the perpetrators of these injustices rarely face accountability because of the court-created defense of "qualified immunity."

This doctrine lets public officials escape civil liability after engaging in misconduct, unless a previous court decision has ruled that nearly identical conduct violates the Constitution – even when their actions put innocent people behind bars. In practice, this means officers can violate people’s rights with impunity, as long as they do so in sufficiently unique ways. 

That’s why the Innocence Project has redoubled its efforts in state legislatures. Last year, we worked with dozens of organizations and grassroots activists from across the political spectrum to pass the New Mexico Civil Rights Act (NMCRA), which eliminates qualified immunity as a legal defense and allows New Mexicans whose constitutional rights have been violated to sue in state court.

The NMCRA’s impact is bigger than the individual lawsuits it will facilitate. To avoid large civil settlements, the law incentivizes cities and counties to enact training and policies that will prevent misconduct before it happens. And ending qualified immunity won’t impact municipalities where officers are conducting themselves professionally. Litigation will instead reveal civil rights violations going unaddressed. The fiscal impact of the legislation is a feature, not a bug, and it finally puts a price tag on injustice. 

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