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PolitiFact VA: McAuliffe flipped on ending qualified immunity

man talking into mic
Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe at a campaign stop in Richmond, Va. earlier this year. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

During a Sept. 16 gubernatorial debate, Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin accused Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe of flipping his position on qualified immunity - a federal law that conditionally protects police officers from being sued for violating people’s constitutional rights.

“What my opponent has done is completely recanted on what he said when he was trying to get the nomination, which is he would in fact reform or remove qualified immunity,” Youngkin said.

So we examined McAuliffe’s position through our Flip-O-Meter, which measures a candidate’s consistency on an issue. We found, as the Virginia Mercury has pointed out, that McAuliffe has made a big shift.

McAuliffe then

Calls to end or reform qualified immunity swelled nationally after the 2020 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman. Advocates said the increased threat of being personally sued would stop many police officers from using excessive force. Opponents said lowering legal protection would put more strain on officers who have to make snap judgments in sometimes dire circumstances.

All four of McAuliffe’s opponents in the Democratic primary supported ending qualified immunity during a March 16 forum that McAuliffe did not attend.

The issue gained momentum in Virginia when, on April 6, a video was published of Windsor police in December 2020 pepper spraying Army Lt. Caron Nazario after stopping him and pulling him from his car because they didn’t see a temporary license plate that was on his back window.

Almost a week later, McAuliffe joined his four rivals in calling for qualified immunity.  The Mercury reported it had received on April 12 the following statement from McAuliffe spokesman Jake Rubenstein:

“For far too long, Virginia’s criminal justice system has unfairly targeted Black and brown people, and the horrific act against Army Lt. Caron Nazario is one of too many that show the critical need for continued reform. Terry believes Virginia must increase police accountability and transparency in incidents of misconduct, improve training, expand body-worn camera programs, and end policies like qualified immunity that can prevent accountability when heinous acts are committed against Virginians.”

McAuliffe was circumspect at a June 1 Democratic debate when the candidates were asked what steps they would take to prevent excessive force by the police. Three of the candidates called for ending qualified immunity. McAuliffe did not mention the issue in his response. He called for more money to improve police training and better police accountability.

McAuliffe now

The McAuliffe campaign’s April statement has become an issue this fall. Youngkin, who supports qualified immunity and promises to improve public safety, has pointed to the issue as a key difference with his opponent. McAuliffe, in response, has said he strongly backed law enforcement during his previous term as governor, from 2014 to 2018, and increased proved officers’ pay.

During the Sept. 16 debate, McAuliffe was asked if he would end qualified immunity.

“No, I would not end it,” he said. “It’s called qualified immunity for a reason. Any officer acting in good faith should and will have the full protections of the Commonwealth of Virginia. We don’t want anyone going out there putting their lives at risk and us not having their back.

“But if you have a law enforcement officer who breaks the law, that’s what qualified immunity is. That’s why we call it qualified immunity. But I will always step up and protect law enforcement. Because they’re out there everyday protecting us.”

In essence, McAuliffe endorsed the current laws.

We asked McAuliffe’s campaign whether McAuliffe had changed his position on qualified immunity and got this statement from Rubenstein:

"As Terry has always made clear, any officer acting within the bounds of the law will have the full legal and civil protections of the Commonwealth of Virginia but that immunity does not qualify for those who break the law - as the name suggests. Terry is open to reforms that will ensure the law is working as intended - and still protects officers who follow the law.”

Our ruling

On April 12, McAuliffe campaign issued a statement saying he wants to “end policies like qualified immunity that can prevent accountability when heinous acts are committed against Virginians.”

Asked about qualified immunity on Sept. 16, McAuliffe said, “No, I would not end it.”

That rates a Full Flop.