After months of protests against racism and police brutality, legislators passed a bill late Tuesday night that ends qualified immunity in state court, allowing police officers and other local elected officials to be prosecuted for civil rights violations. The state Senate voted in favor of the New Mexico Civil Rights Act shortly after midnight, and if amendments are approved by the House, it will head to the governor for signature. KUNM’s Khalil Ekulona spoke to Jeff Proctor of the Santa Fe Reporter about this and other measures aimed at police reform.
JEFF PROCTOR: So this bill, it would allow New Mexicans who've been deprived of their civil rights under the state constitution, whether it's free speech, freedom of assembly, free from illegal search and seizure by the government, equal protection under the law, the same kinds of things you see in the Bill of Rights at the federal level although here in our state some of those protections are a bit more expansive. In any event, if you feel that your civil rights had been violated by the government you can now take that claim into state court and make that assertion. The other big deal under this bill was that the government would not be able to claim qualified immunity. Easiest way to understand it, it's not actually a defense that the government brings, it's something that stops the case before it ever gets to trial. And it's essentially the government saying: we are entitled to immunity from these claims, because there is no such previous case that's exactly on point with this one.
KUNM: Okay, so we keep hearing about how this legislature is more progressive, more left than it's been in the past. Is that holding true as lawmakers weigh in on this civil rights act?
PROCTOR: Yes and no. I would say and the interesting thing about this too Khalil, is I don't think this is really a left right issue in terms of the legislators themselves. I will say that I have for the most part not been surprised with where the opposition to this legislation has come from. There have been a few surprises. So, the last big vote on this was in the Senate Judiciary Committee and it passed on the narrowest of margins. It was a five to four vote with all three republicans on that committee voting against the legislation, no surprise there. And then Daniel Ivey Soto, who's an Albuquerque attorney, and a Democrat also voted against the legislation, which is what made that vote so close. So has the progressive turn in the legislature had an impact one way or another on this bill? I think we'll find that out when it hits the senate floor.
KUNM: Are there any serious barriers to its passage?
PROCTOR: There have been lots of serious barriers, there have been a lot of changes to this bill from its original form. For example, when it was first introduced, there was no cap on damages that plaintiffs could recover in the civil rights claim, now there's a $2 million cap. And that's a response to city and county governments and attorneys who represent school districts, for example, saying hey if we do this you're running the risk of bankrupting some of the smaller communities.
KUNM: We have Senate Bill 220 that's also moving forward. This one would require body cameras that automatically turn on sometimes, when would they turn on?
PROCTOR: What that bill would do, number one it would require this new breed of police body camera so that when something like an aggravated pursuit begins, and the officer flips on his cherry tops, and hammers the gas pedal that would kick on the camera. Or when the camera system detects the sound of a gunshot, it would kick on the camera. Or when the officer goes and pulls his service weapon out of the holster, it would kick on the camera. It would also clarify some of the stuff and the law that was passed last year, requiring the use of body cameras, it would give officers some exceptions for when they don't have to turn the cameras on. That would be like when they are in the middle of some sort of an undercover operation. Right, so right now, all citizen encounters are required to be recorded. This bill has had opposition and I think it's going to continue to have opposition.
Your New Mexico Government is a collaboration between KUNM, New Mexico PBS and the Santa Fe Reporter. Funding for our coverage comes from the New Mexico Local News Fund, the Kellogg Foundation and KUNM listeners like you, with support for public media provided by the Thornburg Foundation.