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NM civil rights law passes first hearing

Fencing went up around the Roundhouse last week, a precautionary measure given reports of possibly violent protests at state capitols around the country. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A proposal to establish a New Mexico Civil Rights Act began moving through the state House on Monday over the objection of city, county and school agencies – all of which expressed fear about the cost of new legal claims.

Supporters, in turn, offered blunt testimony about the need to hold law enforcement and government bodies accountable in state court for wrongdoing.

They cited the wrongful arrest of a teenager later cleared of a murder charge, sexual abuse of foster children and the shooting of a woman by sheriff’s deputies as examples of cases that could lead to the filing of state lawsuits alleging violations of the New Mexico Constitution, as allowed under the bill.

The proposed legislation, House Bill 4, would bar the use of qualified immunity as a defense in cases filed under the Civil Rights Act. Qualified immunity offers legal protection if officials can show their conduct didn’t violate clearly established constitutional rights about which a reasonable person would know.

“For me, it’s unbelievable that police are entrusted to make life-and-death decisions, yet they’re held to some of the lowest standards when it comes to accountability,” said Tijeras resident Elaine Maestas, whose younger sister, Elisha Lucero, was shot 21 times by Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputies in 2019.

Police chiefs and representatives of cities, counties and schools said the proposal would raise insurance costs and do nothing to improve police training. Legislative analysts estimated the proposal might cost the state government and the Association of Counties about $20 million a year.

Roswell Mayor Dennis Kintigh said local governments would face the prospect of raising taxes or cutting services to accommodate increased insurance costs and legal claims. The former FBI agent and police chief said the legal doctrine of qualified immunity is a common-sense standard.

“It provides reasonable protection for those who have acted reasonably in difficult situations,” Kintigh said. “On the street, you have to make decisions in a split second. You don’t have the luxury of 20/20 hindsight.”

Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe said the proposal “does not do anything to achieve true police reform.”

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said the proposal isn’t intended to be the sole legislation aimed at improving law enforcement.

He also disputed that it would increase costs. Government agencies already face greater exposure in federal court than would be allowed under the proposed state Civil Rights Act, he said.

“If people aren’t out violating the constitutional rights of New Mexicans,” Egolf said, “there really isn’t anything to be concerned about.”

The proposal cleared its first House committee, the State Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee, now heads to the House Judiciary Committee, potentially its last stop before reaching the full chamber. It’s sponsored jointly by Egolf and Rep. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque.

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