Lawmakers reject effort to partially repeal qualified immunity for law enforcement

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

Louisiana lawmakers on Wednesday rejected an effort to change a legal doctrine critics say protects officers guilty of misconduct.

Two Republicans joined Democrats in supporting the measure, which failed on a 7-9 vote. Rep. Gregory Miller, the House Civil Law and Procedure chairman, pledged to continue to work on the issue but didn’t offer specifics.

House Bill 51 by Rep. Edmond Jordan, a Baton Rouge Democrat, calls for ending the judicial concept of “qualified immunity” for law enforcement officers accused of causing wrongful death or physical injuries. Winning a civil lawsuit when a police officer violates a victim’s constitutional rights requires being able to point to a precedent involving the exact same situation, an unreasonable burden when every case is different, Jordan said.

While qualified immunity doesn’t affect criminal liability, it shields officers and law enforcement entities from financial consequences, Chris Kaiser with ACLU of Louisiana said. Eliminating this “bulwark against accountability” would encourage law enforcement agencies to weed out bad actors, he said.

“How can we use the law to deter bad acts?” Kaiser said. “Immunity does the opposite of deterrence.”

Activists and civil rights attorneys presented numerous examples of police misconduct, from tasing a pregnant woman several times to shooting an unarmed man in the back of the head, in which the alleged offender was never prosecuted. A civil lawsuit at least allows families to get answers about what really happened, one attorney argued.

But associations representing sheriffs, state troopers, chiefs of police and district attorneys all turned in red cards indicating opposition. St. Charles Parish Sheriff Greg Champagne said he did not oppose the concept, but argued the bill’s language would subject deputies to lawsuits when a suspect injuries themselves while fleeing police. He said the measure could lead to higher insurance costs and make it harder to recruit and retain deputies.

Champagne pointed to other criminal justice reforms approved in 2017 and insisted he was willing to work on further changes.

“We want to do better,” he said.

Technically, Jordan’s bill was voluntarily deferred, which means in theory it still could be brought back for further discussion, though the 30-day special session is more than half over.

Members of Congress, including New Orleans Democratic U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, are discussing the possibility of repealing qualified immunity at the federal level. Richmond submitted a letter to the House committee in support of Jordan’s bill. The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up the issue.