House Panel Backs Tougher Penalties On Police Assaults, Rejects Qualified Immunity

The Roundhouse in Santa Fe. Post file photo

The Santa Fe New Mexican

A House panel voted Saturday to advance a bill to increase penalties for some attacks on police officers, while rejecting two others that would have restored qualified immunity as a defense for officers facing misconduct complaints.

House Bill 155, which received the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee’s stamp of approval, would move aggravated battery upon a peace officer from a third-degree to a second-degree felony, raising the penalty from up to three years in prison to nine years.

The next step is a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee. The bill’s supporters cast it as a common-sense measure to ensure people who commit serious assaults against police officers are properly punished.

“I feel like this bill is very important, especially because our police officers, they’re some of the best of us in our communities,” said Rep. John Block, R-Alamogordo.

While there was less testimony against HB 155 than the other two bills the committee rejected, there was some opposition. State chief public defender Bennett Baur argued it is too broad and would lead to overcharging in cases where someone is in a mental health or substance abuse crisis.

“In the end, I think that this would make a second-degree felony, nine years potentially the penalty, for someone who is angry during a police encounter, swings something and misses. And so I think we need to focus on the people who are actually doing the serious crimes,” Baur said.

No appetite to reinstate qualified immunity

The committee voted 4-2 along party lines to table two other bills. House Bill 109, which is being sponsored by Block, would repeal the New Mexico Civil Rights Act. Passed in 2021, the law lets people sue governmental entities in state court if they believe their civil rights have been violated and eliminated qualified immunity as a legal defense in such complaints.

House Bill 203, which is being sponsored by Rep. Alan Martinez, R-Bernalillo, would amend the act to allow for the use of qualified immunity as a defense again.

Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine under which government officials are given immunity in cases of civil rights violations unless they violated a clearly established legal or constitutional right. The doctrine frequently comes into play in police brutality cases. Most states still allow it as a defense; New Mexico is one of just three states to have gotten rid of or significantly limited it over the past few years in response to the nationwide debate over policing.

Republicans and police who support bringing qualified immunity back shared anecdotal stories of police officers who, they say, are leaving the state for ones with more police-friendly laws.

“We’re losing very qualified individuals who love New Mexico but who cannot afford to lose their livelihoods, their homes, the things they invested in, because the state of New Mexico no longer protects those officials,” Martinez said.

Law enforcement is a generational job, Martinez said, with children going into their parents’ profession. The recent changes to the law, he said, are making it harder to recruit police officers.

“As this was stripped from law enforcement, parents were no longer encouraging their children to become law enforcement officials, because they saw the writing on the wall. … They didn’t want their children to lose everything they had because government no longer had their back. So they’re not being encouraged to join,” Martinez said.

Democrats questioned whether there is any data to support the idea that the New Mexico Civil Rights Act is driving police out of the state or making it harder to recruit. Representatives of several civil rights groups also testified against Block’s and Martinez’s bills.

“Qualified immunity has proven to be problematic in a lot of ways,” said Nayomi Valdez, director of public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union-New Mexico. “It creates a culture of lack of accountability, and it creates an unreasonable delay for plaintiffs.”

The New Mexico Civil Rights Act, some noted, was the product of considerable negotiation and compromise.

“The Legislature took a giant step towards breathing life into our laws and Constitution,” said Nicolas Cordova, health care director for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “Now is not the time to reverse course.”

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