HB 609 Could End Qualified Immunity, Ensuring Police Who Use Excessive or Deadly Force Face Justice


Police Beat Fridge Down” by Infrogmation is licensed under CC BY 2.0

When an officer uses excessive or deadly force, but no prosecutor will press criminal charges against them, victims and their families have to seek legal justice on their own. Unfortunately, because of qualified immunity protection, typically these prosecution efforts are fruitless. 

Qualified immunity protects law enforcement from prosecution if they violate a citizen’s constitutional rights, but weren’t aware their behavior was unconstitutional. It is used so frequently it has made it nearly impossible to hold officers legally accountable for excessive force. Representative Edmond Jordan commented, “Qualified immunity has become absolute immunity.” 

Representative Edmond Jordan was so struck by the lack of justice police violence victims receive, that he sponsored HB609 which will eliminate the qualified immunity defense when officers cause death or harm and the court finds their actions to be unreasonable. The bill will make it much easier for citizens to win lawsuits against law enforcement who violate their rights, causing injury and death. This measure will keep law enforcement officers in check by making sure and letting them know, their violent actions are not above the law. 

Jordan clarified that the bill is targeting “bad actors” in the police force. “No good officer wants a bad officer on the force,” said Representative Denise Marcelle

This sentiment seems to be true because the bill has received wide support from law enforcement agencies. In part, this is due to the bill being created by the Louisiana Legislature’s Police Training, Screening and De-escalation Task Force, which is a 25-member panel composed of lawmakers, advocacy groups, and law enforcement organization leaders, that was created after the murder of George Floyd last year. 

While introducing the bill, Jordan read a long list of law enforcement organizations that had served on the task force and attended meetings that did not object to it. The bill has received steady support from the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, and the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association. 

Jordan was surprised to hear that the Fraternal Order of Police had written a note to some lawmakers voicing their reversal on supporting the bill after voicing cautious support for it at the  House Qualified Immunity Subcommittee meeting in February. Representative Blake Miguez, an opponent of the bill, said it will reduce police officer recruitment and “send the wrong message” to officers.

Jordan called the opposition to the bill, even after it was developed with a task force of law enforcement officers, and supported by law enforcement groups, “exhausting” and “frustrating.”

Mike Ranatza, head of the Louisiana Sheriffs Association, sent lawmakers a note clarifying the group’s support for the bill and saying “there has been a lot of misinformation about this bill that is simply false…The bill only reinforces current case law, which says anyone, even a police officer, can be sued for unreasonable acts under traditional tort law.” 

At the House’s debate of the bill, there were some emotional testimonies. “We live in two different Americas. We live in two different Louisianas. And some of the issues we have to face, I hope you never have to face,” Representative Edmond Jordan, who is Black, told his white colleagues.

Representative Ted James, chairman of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus, told the chamber, “Some of you think that the issue we’re trying to solve is frivolous. Some of you think that dead Black and brown bodies at the hands of police officers is frivolous. Period.”

The Louisiana House voted to pass the bill, with all of the House’s Democrats, 19 Republicans, and 2 Independents supporting the legislation. However, this wide support only occurred after an amendment was tacked on to the bill that Jordan dubbed a“poison pill amendment.” 

The amendment by Representative Bryan Fontenot stipulated that if residents sue an officer and lose they have to pay the other side’s court costs and legal fees even if their lawsuit wasn’t found to be frivolous by the court. 

The damaging amendment will deter citizens from prosecuting officers, undermining the purpose of the bill. “I’m not interested in playing politics,” Jordan commented. “I’m interested in passing good legislation for the state of Louisiana.”

 

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