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Lawmakers pass NM civil rights legislation

In this file photo from 2020, Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, presents a bill on the Senate floor. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE — Legislation to establish a New Mexico Civil Rights Act — a proposal sparked by protests against racism and police misconduct — won final approval Wednesday in the Legislature, sending it next to the governor.

It passed the Senate on a 26-15 vote about 10 minutes after midnight.

Senators revised the House-approved version of legislation, but the House signed off on the changes in the afternoon.

The legislation, House Bill 4, emerged quickly this year as one of the most fiercely debated measures of the session. City and county governments and law enforcement executives have opposed the proposal, arguing it would do little to prevent misconduct while exposing taxpayers to costly legal settlements.

Sen. Joseph Cervantes, a Las Cruces Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill, introduced a package of amendments during the debate intended to address some concerns expressed by opponents.

The changes would:

— Make it discretionary, not mandatory, for a court to award attorney fees to a prevailing plaintiff.

— Require the plaintiff to notify the government of a potential civil rights claim against law enforcement within a year of the incident.

— Allow people to bring claims only for incidents that happen after July 1 this year, not for anything that happened in past years.

The Senate adopted the amendments.

The heart of the proposed Civil Rights Act remained intact. It would allow lawsuits to be filed in state court to recover financial damages for violations of the New Mexico Bill of Rights.

Sen. Jacob Candelaria, an Albuquerque Democrat and attorney who handles civil rights litigation, said the proposal would be an important step toward helping victims of government wrongdoing. The legal deck is already stacked against people harmed by public agencies, he said.

“Our Constitution can promise anything it wants,” Candelaria said, “but the promise of due process means nothing if there’s no remedy. The promise of freedom of religion means nothing if there’s no remedy.”

Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington, said the legislation could trigger an “endless pit of lawsuits.” The Legislature, he said, should heed the warnings of schools, cities and counties expressing fears about an influx of legal claims.

Lawmakers should focus instead, Sharer said, on protecting police officers and sheriff’s deputies who put their lives at risk for the public.

“These are officers who just want to go home at the end of their shift and see their family,” he said.

Cervantes, in turn, urged his colleagues “to reject some of the rhetoric tonight. The suggestion that this is us vs. the police is a diversion. It’s a tactic to divide us.”

The proposal includes a $2 million cap on damages for each individual involved in an incident that led to a claim.

Qualified immunity — a legal doctrine that makes it harder for plaintiffs to succeed — would be barred as a defense against claims under the act.

The bill is sponsored by Cervantes, House Speaker Brian Egolf of Santa Fe and Rep. Georgene Louis of Albuquerque, all Democrats.

Wednesday’s vote was largely along party lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.

Sen. George Muñoz of Gallup was the only Democrat to vote against the bill.

Now that the House and Senate have each passed the measure, it will go next to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

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