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Civil Rights Act walks the justice talk

The Journal Editorial Board and Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller have come out against New Mexico’s proposed civil rights bill. The bill would make timely justice available, in state courts, to victims of police misconduct. The bill would remove the city’s ability to delay justice through the use of a qualified immunity defense. The Journal and Mayor Keller say compensating victims of incompetent police work is just too expensive. They provide no evidence to support their claim that the bill will add any cost to taxpayers. In fact, passage of the bill would encourage early settlement of most litigation and save municipalities millions of dollars in defense attorney fees and expert fees.

But there are critical human rights issues at stake here as well. In another time and place Keller said this: “We stand in solidarity with the African American community who are grieving the recurring violence against their community.” This civil rights bill is a small step toward combatting recurring violence against the African American community and against all marginalized people in our state. Keller should be the first to support passage of the bill.

On Nov. 8, 2019, Gisell Estrada, an innocent high schooler, turned herself in to Albuquerque police. An Albuquerque detective had obtained a warrant for Gisell’s arrest for murder. The city and the Journal both agree that the charges were false. The detective’s investigation was woefully inadequate. In fact, the Journal endorsed the ACLU’s description of Gisell’s experience as a “Kafkaesque nightmare born of the incompetence of those who have sworn to protect and serve her.” Gisell spent a week in jail. She was subjected to humiliating strip searches and suffered isolation and removal from a loving family and a supportive school environment. Gisell will suffer life-long trauma, loss of educational opportunities and diminishment of income. She needs therapy and educational help. Despite the incredible harm the detective inflicted upon Gisell, he will suffer no criminal prosecution. Keller will not be forced to spend a week in jail and be subjected to strip searches. The only justice available to Gisell is an award of money as compensation for the injuries the city visited upon her. At a critical point in Gisell Estrada’s life, she will learn whether America is true to its promises of freedom and liberty for all or is that just too expensive for herself and others like her.

When Gisell’s lawyers file the federal civil rights lawsuit against the detective, the city will raise qualified immunity. If the city chooses, it can move to stay all discovery. A federal court, in turn, will stay all discovery if the city requests. Gisell and her family will wait a year for a decision from the trial court. If the city loses that motion, it can appeal to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. The attorneys will file briefs, the court will hear arguments and, in about two years, the city will lose its appeal. The city will have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in defense attorney fees and will have done nothing for Gisell and her family. While Gisell’s claim winds through federal court, the police officer will go on with his career; Keller will be making vacuous speeches about civil rights in some other political post; and a family will try to cope with a daughter’s trauma. The New Mexico Civil Rights Act will remove the litigation strategy and tragedy of delay.

At this critical point in our nation’s history, we should stand with restoring the rights and honor of young children deprived of freedoms, dignities and a fair future rather than with incompetent police work. For one who says he wants to counter police violence against people of color, there is no other choice than to be in favor of a bill that gives the abused access to justice.

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