The governor of New Mexico signed a bill on Wednesday that will permit people to sue police officers and other government officials for violating their rights under the state constitution—without requiring them to overcome the obstacle of qualified immunity.
Qualified immunity is a court-created rule that limits victims of police violence and misconduct from holding officers accountable when they violate a person’s constitutional rights.
The doctrine lets police brutality go unpunished by providing that a police officer cannot even be put on trial unless the person suing shows the conduct was unlawful and can point to a prior court case with nearly identical facts that says the police actions were illegal.
“[G]ood public servants work tirelessly every single day to protect [citizens’] rights, to ensure them, to safeguard New Mexicans,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “But when violations do occur, we as Americans know too well that the victims are disproportionately people of color, and that there are too often roadblocks to fighting for those inalienable rights in a court of law.”
Based on recommendations from a state civil rights commission established last summer by the state legislature and Gov. Lujan Grisham, the New Mexico Civil Rights Act specifies that “the defense of qualified immunity” does not apply. That means lawsuits against police officers could go forward even if there is no previous case with nearly identical facts.
The new law will make it possible for more victims of police abuse to obtain compensation, experts told Reason. And it’s possible that allowing more cases and trials could change officers’ behavior by bringing abusive policies and practices to light. The bill authorizes damages up to $2 million for “deprivation of any rights, privileges or immunities pursuant to the bill of rights of the constitution of New Mexico.”
HB 4 passed the House of Representatives in February. The state senate added several amendments in response to concerns from cities and counties. The amendments exempt certain infrastructure and water projects, allow (rather than mandate) awards of attorney’s fees to prevailing plaintiffs, require that a government agency receive notice of a potential claim involving law enforcement within one year, and apply the new law only to claims from incidents that occur on or after July 1, 2021, the effective date of the new law.
Both houses passed the amended bill on March 17.
“The New Mexico Civil Rights Act is about ensuring equality and justice for all New Mexicans, no matter their race or background,” bill sponsor Rep. Georgene Louis said in a statement. “By making our state agencies accountable for their actions, we build trust between them and our communities, and create a fairer state for everyone.”
New Mexico joins a growing number of states that have limited or abolished qualified immunity since protests against police brutality erupted worldwide in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd last May.
Over the past year, Massachusetts approved a bill that revokes qualified immunity for police officers who have been decertified, and New York City passed an ordinance that limits qualified immunity for “unreasonable searches and seizures,” including claims of excessive force.
Colorado passed a police reform package in June that ended qualified immunity for police officers who are sued for violating people’s rights or failing to intervene when they see another officer violating a person’s rights.
In August, Connecticut passed a weaker bill that limits qualified immunity to officers who “had an objectively good faith belief that [their] conduct did not violate the law”—a vague exception that critics argue could swallow the rule.
Unlike the New Mexico bill, which applies to all government officials, the Colorado and Connecticut laws apply only to police officers.
This article was updated to reflect the governor signing the amended bill.