(The Center Square) – A Louisiana Senate committee turned back an effort Tuesday to lessen lawsuit protections for law enforcement officers who engage in “unreasonable” and “unconstitutional” conduct.
Under the concept of “qualified immunity,” law enforcement officers accused of violating citizens’ constitutional rights can be protected from civil lawsuits if the officer didn’t have prior knowledge the behavior was unconstitutional. Qualified immunity does not affect criminal liability.
Rep. Edmond Jordan, a Democrat who represents parts of East and West Baton Rouge parishes, said the principle, in effect, means a citizen can’t win a lawsuit against law enforcement unless the exact same set of facts has been established as a violation, which he argued is not a reasonable standard. He mentioned examples, such as a seven-months-pregnant woman who was handcuffed and tased, where the court ruled that an officer’s behavior was both unreasonable and unconstitutional but still was protected by qualified immunity.
“Qualified immunity has become absolute immunity,” said Jordan, author of House Bill 609.
Michael Ranatza, executive director of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association, endorsed the bill, which he said would codify how Louisiana courts already are handling such cases. The bill would have applied to state courts, not federal courts. Other speakers argued qualified immunity tips the scales of justice in favor of the government over the public.
Opponents argued, however, the bill would weaken protections for officers who are forced to make split-second decisions. Officers don’t make much money, and eroding their protections will make it harder to recruit good people for those jobs, speakers argued.
Darrell Basco, president of the Louisiana Fraternal Order of Police, said the change would be confusing to officers and would affect how they do their jobs. He suggested the bill would increase insurance costs.
“The legal system is already working,” said Michael Carter, president of the Shreveport Police Officers Association.
The Senate Committee Judiciary B voted 4-2 against advancing HB 609.