Police Under Review? Police Under Review?

HB5013 would take away qualified immunity from law enforcement officials, making it easier for people to sue them.

RICHMOND-Less than 24 hours after killing it on Monday, a Virginia House committee revived a bill that would make it easier to sue police officers for misconduct. The proposed HB5013 would allow residents to take a law-enforcement officer to court if they feel he or she violated their rights. To be clear, law enforcement officers can already face criminal charges in the commonwealth. However, it’s a bit harder for someone to sue them, due to what’s known as qualified immunity. 

That concept is at the heart of both the bill and a discussion going on in the General Assembly. Anyone familiar with politics may have heard of the phrase diplomatic immunity and this is similar. Set up by a 1982 Supreme Court case, qualified immunity protects government officials including law enforcement from liability if you feel your rights were violated. Now you can still file a lawsuit, but in order to do so, you first have to prove a court previously ruled that it was “clearly established” the officer’s specific actions were unconstitutional. That ruling also has to exist in the same court you’re filing in to count. So if you’re in Lynchburg, Virginia and a court in Jackson, Tennessee supported a case like yours, it doesn’t matter. Under qualified immunity, the officer can’t be sued. 

Del. Jeff Bourne (D-Richmond) saw that as a problem, which is why he proposed the original bill. Other lawmakers argued that removing qualified immunity would damage recruitment. Fewer people would get into law enforcement if there’s a chance they could get sued, multiple House members argued. Due to a lack of agreement, the bill died in the House Appropriations Committee on Monday. On Tuesday morning, however, things changed. 

Immunity Bill Revived After Changes

During the Appropriations Committee meeting Tuesday, Del. David Reid (D-Loudon County) asked to put HB5013 back up for discussion. Reid had voted against the bill Monday, concerned that the original version would allow officers and their employers to be sued for off-duty actions. Reid said he and Bourne talked several times on Monday and the result was a revised bill that eliminated a couple things. Under the revised version, employers would not be liable for anything law enforcement officials do at off-duty jobs. The revised version also restricted the number of lawsuits, so that someone could only file one every two years. Despite the changes, multiple committee members raised concerns. 

“Police officers are dealing with these mentally ill and these people that are hyped up on these drugs,” said Del. Matt Faris (R-Campbell County). “We passed legislation that restricts how they can hold [suspects] and what they can do. When we continue to cripple these police officers, I just don’t see any way it makes the situation any better.” 

Fariss acknowledged there is a nationwide problem, but didn’t see the need for a bill like this in Virginia. Instead of punishing bad cops, he believed removing qualified immunity would make it harder to hire the right people to do the job. His comments were echoed by Del. Emily Brewer (R-Smithfield), who argued that win or lose, once a lawsuit gets filed, an officer’s life is damaged. 

“We’re talking about the opportunity to destroy their entire career,” Brewer said. “With social media, the reality is we try people in the court of public opinion before we allow investigations to go forth.” 

Everyone Needs Their Day in Court 

Supporters of the bill argued Tuesday that it was needed as a way to show citizens their rights will be protected. 

“This does not mean that if a police officer or a police department is sued, they automatically lose,” said Del. Jay Jones (D-Norfolk). “All it says is that it goes to court before a jury. We are only seeking to provide people with redress in court and you know what, I’ll take a whole bunch of frivolous lawsuits if it means someone who was shot and killed or someone who was shot in the back gets a day in court.”  

Del. Delores McQuinn (D-Richmond) went further, arguing that she hopes a bill like this makes police officers second guess their decisions. She believed second guessing could lead to better decision making in some cases. 

“For 8 ½ minutes, someone was on George Floyd’s neck,” she said. “There should have been some second guessing at that time. We are tired. We are extremely tired of what we are seeing, what we know is occurring and how our communities are being treated. It is only the bad apples we are trying to address. I believe 99 percent of police officers are great officers in their communities. But for those who are not, we must do something. We must set this in order. If you all have a better way to address it, then bring that to the table.”

With the revisions in place, Bourne’s bill passed 12-8 on Tuesday. It now goes to the full House for discussion.