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Bill Limiting Lawsuit Protections for Police Defeated in Senate

Lawmakers meeting
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers had to adopt different practices to meet and limit spread of COVID-19. (Photo: Roberto Roldan/VPM News)

The Virginia Senate has voted down a bill that would have allowed for police to be sued for violating someone’s rights.

Currently, police are protected from being sued unless a plaintiff can prove there was a violation of clearly established rights that a reasonable officer would know. It’s a high legal standard known as qualified immunity. Advocates for police reform say qualified immunity makes it all but impossible to sue individual officers for misconduct. Del. Jeff Bourne (D-Richmond) put forward a bill to eliminate qualified immunity, but the Senate Judiciary Committee voted twelve to three on Thursday, killing the bill for the special session. 

Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) said he believes the lawsuit protections are necessary for law enforcement to adequately perform its job.

“We can’t armchair quarterback or apply 20/20 hindsight from the comfort of our law offices or judicial chambers or legislative chambers to actions that may require a decision in a split second,” Obenshain said. “We’ve got to give them the ability to exercise some judgement and make a mistake.”

Obenshain also said ending qualified immunity could make it harder to find new recruits. Bourne, who’s bill narrowly passed the House after being voted down and revived twice, pushed back against that claim.

“If, in fact, the actions of the officer were lawful then there’s no constitutional violation,” he said. “What we are trying to do is give folks justice.”

Ending qualified immunity was a top priority for police reform advocates like the ACLU of Virginia who say people whose rights are violated should get their day in court. But some senator’s were concerned about what could happen if lawsuits against individual officers were allowed to go to court. 

Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax), who voted against the bill, said he was concerned the qualified immunity standard was being eliminated with no clear replacement. 

“You have a cause of action with absolutely no standard,” he said. “I can’t think of a single profession in this commonwealth where, if I’m sued as an attorney for malpractice or a physician is sued for making a mistake, there’s no standard that says whether or not they did not achieve that standard with their conduct.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s vote against Bourne’s bill included a clause that the bill will be sent to a joint subcommittee for further study before next year’s session.

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