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La. House rejects bill to limit qualified immunity for police officers

Supporters of the bill said qualified immunity protects “bad actors” in law enforcement

BATON ROUGE, La. — A House committee rejected a bill Wednesday that would have prohibited police officers from receiving immunity in civil cases involving abuse allegations.

The bill by Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, aimed to address pushes for police reform after the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis.

Members of the House Civil Law and Procedure Committee killed the bill in a 9-7 vote, mostly among party lines. All Democrats on the panel voted in favor of the bill, while most Republicans opposed it. Reps. Thomas Pressly, R-Shreveport, and Richard Nelson, R- Mandeville, voted alongside Democratic members.

Qualified immunity protects government officials from civil lawsuits that claim the official violated a plaintiff’s rights. Suits are only permitted if an official violated “clearly established” rights.

Qualified immunity has been debated at the federal level as Democrats and some Republicans in Congress have called for its end in the wake of Floyd’s death. Congress has debated repealing the doctrine, and the Supreme Court announced Monday that it had declined to hear.

U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond,a Democrat who represents New Orleans and parts of Baton Rouge, wrote a letter to the state House committee urging members to support the bill.

“Many of you here have been upset that contact tracing or wearing a mask could violate your constitutional rights,” he said. “Isn’t the taking of a life a much more egregious violation?”

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Supporters of the bill said qualified immunity protects “bad actors” in law enforcement and makes it harder for people injured by police to go to trial and get compensation.

Jim Craig, an attorney and the director of the Louisiana office of the MacArthur Justice Center, said Jordan’s bill would have held officers accountable “while still protecting those officers who are faced with difficult judgment calls about the use of force.”

Representatives of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association opposed the bill, saying it was concerned that the language could invite lawsuits against officers who used force under reasonable circumstances.

“We’re here to make sure law enforcement continue to believe they can do their job, and when they don’t use excessive force...that they’re not going to lose everything and go through extended court processes,” said St. Charles Parish Sheriff Greg Champagne.

Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, also opposed the bill, saying it could have “vilified” officers and disincentivized them from doing their jobs out of fear of being sued. Her nephew, a police officer, was killed on duty.

“Nobody is trying to demonize all police officers,” said Rep. Sam Jenkins, D-Shreveport. “What this is about is the officers who don’t do a good job. There’s a dark side of this that we can’t escape.”

Lawmakers recently heard another piece of legislation that addressed police brutality. Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, proposed a bill that would have created a study on policing. Several Republicans opposed the bill, and removed wording that mentioned Floyd and police brutality before passing it.

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