“On a dark and rainy night in October 2011, Samuel Pauly was shot to death through the window of his rural New Mexico home by one of three state police officers investigating an earlier road rage incident.”
This is the first line of a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals decision describing the night that my son was shot dead by the State Police, forever changing the lives of our family.
I have long been an advocate for law enforcement, am a proud gun owner and deeply believe in the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution. When my son, Sam Pauly, was taken from us by a police bullet nearly 10 years ago, I learned that our rights are not protected as I had believed.
Before my son was killed, I believed that one of those constitutional rights was that when police used excessive force and killed a person, there would be accountability. I believed the legal system would not unfairly protect officers who took a life without justification. I thought at the very least we would get a trial and my fellow citizens could decide on what justice was due. This turned out to be untrue. Our case never even got a jury trial.
My legal odyssey ultimately ended with the United States Supreme Court stating that the police officer who shot my son could not be held accountable because no case had found that this particular conduct – shooting a person standing in their home under the facts of this case – was unlawful. The Supreme Court’s decision was not that the officer had the right to kill my son, it was that the officer was not reasonably notified that they did not have the right to kill my son.
“Qualified immunity” protected the officer.
Qualified Immunity was a foreign concept to me when my son was killed. But, during our legal struggle, it became a symbol of a culture designed to protect police officers at all cost. I firmly believe that the abuses at the hands of police officers that have been seen around our country are, in part, due to the legal shield of qualified immunity that gave officers a free pass to avoid accountability. It shields officers, and tells them they can shoot first and think later.
The New Mexico Civil Rights Act, which recently passed the New Mexico House of Representatives, will eliminate the shield of qualified immunity and create accountability for police officers who violate rights. Personal experience is powerful when it shows how blind support of law enforcement can lead to abuses, cost individuals their lives and destroy families.
New Mexicans deserve justice when abuse by police and other government actors destroys their lives. They deserve a trial where members of the community can hold bad actors to account. Accountability will make the public safe and the police less likely to use excessive force. And it will provide a fair outcome when police overreach. The time has come in New Mexico to end the abuses that have been promulgated by qualified immunity.
I did not seek the role of being an advocate to end qualified immunity and advocate for justice for victims of police violence, but the role fell on my shoulders when my son, Sam Pauly, was killed by police violence. I do not want what happened to my son on that rainy night in October to happen to anyone else’s child. With the passage of House Bill 4 comes safety and a judicial system that protects New Mexicans who have been wrongly harmed by police violence. This is why I support the New Mexico Civil Rights Act.
Daniel Pauly lives in Santa Fe. His son Sam Pauly was killed by State Police gunfire in his house in Glorieta, east of Santa Fe, on Oct. 11, 2011, after his brother was involved in a late-night driving dispute on Interstate 25 in which no one was hurt. A point of dispute is whether responding officers approaching the Glorieta home identified themselves as police. The brother, who said he feared intruders or someone from the road-rage incident, fired warning shots out the back door and an officer subsequently shot and killed Sam Pauly.