Louisiana legislative subcommittee endorses effort to weaken lawsuit protection for police misconduct

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

A Louisiana legislative subcommittee has endorsed a proposal to make it easier to win lawsuits against law enforcement officers who injure or kill civilians.

The unanimous decision by members of the House Civil Law and Procedure Committee may be a signal for legislation to scale back “qualified immunity” for law enforcement, after the full committee narrowly turned back a similar effort last year that associations representing sheriffs, state troopers, chiefs of police and district attorneys opposed.

The concept of qualified immunity does not apply to criminal charges, but it can shield officers and agencies from financial liability for misconduct. 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, critics of the concept say.

Representatives of law enforcement have argued eliminating the protection would make it harder to recruit officers. They also expressed concerns about expensive lawsuits and high insurance rates.

Agencies would be less likely to employ bad actors if they were afraid of losing a lawsuit if their officers use excessive force, said Raymond Diamond, an LSU law professor who participated in a legislative task force that looked at numerous aspects of law enforcement conduct.

“The jurisdictions would have more of an incentive to police their own police,” Diamond said. “Police officers would find themselves under pressure from their own departments. Sheriff’s deputies would find themselves under pressure from the sheriffs to behave in a manner that doesn’t cost the jurisdiction money.”

Courts would use the same standards to judge whether an officer’s behavior was reasonable under the circumstances, but they would not have to cite a specific precedent to award damages, speakers said.

Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association Executive Director Michael Ranatza and association attorney Shannon Dirmann spoke in favor of the proposal. The association opposed legislation to strike down the state’s qualified immunity statutes last year, but Ranatza and Dirmann said they were comfortable with the new proposal’s language.

Donovan Livaccari, an attorney representing the Louisiana Fraternal Order of Police, was more wary. He said qualified immunity works well, though he understood why some people are opposed to it.

Livaccari said good candidates for law enforcement might seek work in other states with stronger protections, making recruitment in Louisiana more difficult than it is already.

He said officers have enough to worry about without the threat of expensive lawsuits, but lawmakers said their employers and their insurers would be more likely to have to pay.

State lawmakers only can change state laws, so qualified immunity still would be used in federal courts. However, some members of Congress would like to repeal qualified immunity nationwide.

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