Apr 7, 2021 - Politics & Policy

New Mexico eliminates qualified immunity

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in Santa Fe in August 2019.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in Santa Fe in August 2019. Photo: Steven St John/Bloomberg via Getty Images

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) signed a law Wednesday that eliminates a legal defense known as qualified immunity, making it easier to sue government employees, including police officers, for civil rights violations.

Why it matters: New Mexico is now the third state to eliminate qualified immunity as a national debate unfolds on legal protections for police officers sparked by the 2020 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Context: Qualified immunity shields government officials from liability in civil rights lawsuits unless they violated a clearly established constitutional right.

  • That generally means public officials are shielded from an overwhelming majority of civil rights lawsuits.
  • New Mexico's bill allows victims to sue the employer of the individual who violated their rights for damages capped at $2 million.

What they're saying: “New Mexicans are guaranteed certain rights by our state constitution,” Gov. Lujan Grisham said. “Those rights are sacred, and the constitutional document providing for them is the basis of all we are privileged to do as public servants of the people of this great state."

  • "Indeed, good public servants work tirelessly every single day to protect those rights, to ensure them, to safeguard New Mexicans. But when violations do occur, we as Americans know too well that the victims are disproportionately people of color, and that there are too often roadblocks to fighting for those inalienable rights in a court of law."
  • “In response to some of the commentary surrounding this measure, I will say: This is not an anti-police bill. This bill does not endanger any first responder or public servant – so long as they conduct themselves professionally within the bounds of our constitution and with a deep and active respect for the sacred rights it guarantees all of us as New Mexicans.”

The big picture: Steve Hebbe, chief of police in Farmington, New Mexico, and president of the state’s police chiefs association, told the Wall Street Journal that the law will only "get a few people some justice in state court" and that it won't address more pressing issues, such as police training.

  • "Communities and taxpayers are going to have to pay for it. It will be easier to sue the police, but it won’t bring about police reform," Hebbe said.
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