Insurance limited for civil rights law, NM Counties says - Albuquerque Journal

Insurance limited for civil rights law, NM Counties says

The Colfax County Building in Raton. An association representing New Mexico counties reported Tuesday that it’s had trouble finding full insurance coverage for claims filed under a new civil rights law. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The association representing New Mexico counties says it’s been unable to obtain extra insurance coverage to handle claims under the newly established state Civil Rights Act, exposing taxpayers to more legal risk.

Steve Kopelman, executive director of New Mexico Counties, said the limited insurance coverage increases the chances that a county government will have to add a civil rights judgment to its tax rolls and make property owners pick up the tab.

“All it’s going to take is one catastrophic loss when there’s no insurance,” Kopelman told state lawmakers Tuesday. “I think we’re going to see some really, really scary situations.”

His assessment came in a legislative hearing at the Capitol as county representatives outlined their legislative priorities – much of which center on the cost of operating jails, including legal liability.

Democratic legislators, in turn, pushed back on the idea that legal costs should be an overriding consideration in the protection of civil rights. The new law, they said, bolsters accountability when government wrongdoing results in, say, the abuse of a child or killing of an innocent person.

“It’s about protecting the rights of individuals who for far too long have gone unprotected,” House Majority Leader Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, said of the new law.

Tuesday’s back-and-forth comes as New Mexico legislators hold hearings ahead of a 30-day legislative session set to start Jan. 18. A special session dedicated to redistricting is also expected in December.

The county representatives told lawmakers Tuesday that they expect to ask for state funding to help offset the cost of housing state inmates in county jails.

Jails are usually filled by people serving short sentences or just arrested by law enforcement officers. But they also handle state inmates accused of probation or parole violations and state inmates awaiting transfer to state prison.

The counties contend they are reimbursed for only $2 million of the $50 million it costs to house state inmates.

Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, asked about the financial impact of House Bill 4 – civil rights legislation that grew out of protests against racism and police brutality.

The measure established a state Civil Rights Act that allows the filing of lawsuits in state court to recover financial damages if a public agency or officer violates a person’s rights under the state Bill of Rights.

The law also bars qualified immunity as a defense to the claims, in contrast to litigation handled in federal court.

Kopelman said the counties’ insurance pool – which covers 29 of the 33 counties in the state – generally offers insurance of up to $2 million for each event that triggers an allegation of a civil rights violation.

The association has an insurance carrier for more expensive claims, he said, but the carrier won’t cover claims filed under the state civil rights law.

The counties are still looking for the extra insurance, which is known as “reinsurance” because it complements the first level of coverage.

Without the extra level of insurance, Kopelman said, counties might have to add a civil rights judgment to the tax rolls, resulting in a property tax increase.

“That’s more than a little scary,” Scott said.

House Bill 4 limits civil rights claims to $2 million per person. But if more than one person makes a claim involving the same event, Kopelman said, the liability could climb into the tens of millions of dollars.

He said Lea County – which isn’t covered by the association’s insurance pool – saw its premiums for law enforcement and detention jump from about $300,000 a year to $675,000.

It could be years before the full impact is clear. Kopelman said the association had seen five claims under the law since it went into effect July 1.

Democratic legislators suggested counties focus on preventing civil rights violations before they happen.

“What have you done to make sure we are changing the way in which our officers are trained to prevent those claims from even occurring in the first place?” Democratic Rep. Pamelya Herndon of Albuquerque asked.

Martinez, the House majority leader, urged the counties to keep in mind the harm endured by real people involved in civil rights litigation. New Mexico courts, he added, should help weed out needless claims.

Kopelman told lawmakers that the counties have an accreditation program for jails and other strategies intended to improve training and limit legal exposure.

Home » Courts » Insurance limited for civil rights law, NM Counties says

Albuquerque Journal and its reporters are committed to telling the stories of our community.

• Do you have a question you want someone to try to answer for you? Do you have a bright spot you want to share?
   We want to hear from you. Please email

taboola desktop

10 attorneys respond to governor's call for DA
ABQnews Seeker
Applications submitted to fill out rest ... Applications submitted to fill out rest of Raúl Torrez's term
Her drug charges were dropped. The next day she ...
ABQnews Seeker
April Trujillo the 18th person to ... April Trujillo the 18th person to die in MDC custody since 2020
Truck wash employee charged in fatal shooting
ABQnews Seeker
Police say Nicholas Dee, 39, shot ... Police say Nicholas Dee, 39, shot a fleeing homeless man
Bill makes illegal the export of US Native artifacts
ABQnews Seeker
STOP Act also enables an item's ... STOP Act also enables an item's return when found
State settles with Kroger
ABQnews Seeker
$60M in funding will be put ... $60M in funding will be put towards opioid abatement efforts
US sued over silvery minnow
ABQnews Seeker
Rio Grande fish is victim of ... Rio Grande fish is victim of poor management, group says
ABQ man sentenced to 12½ years in bystander's death
ABQnews Seeker
Stray bullet from outside killed 36-year-old ... Stray bullet from outside killed 36-year-old woman
Teens charged in string of robberies around ABQ
ABQnews Seeker
An 18-year-old male is one of ... An 18-year-old male is one of a group of teens accused in a string of commercial robberies — five at gunpoint and three in ...
State sues tobacco companies over settlement payments
ABQnews Seeker
Complaint notes that NM has lost ... Complaint notes that NM has lost out on more than $84M in the past 14 years