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Tierna Unruh-Enos is the managing editor and associate publisher at The Paper.

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The New Mexico Civil Rights Act, or House Bill 4, cleared its first hurdle, the House State Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee (HSEIC), Monday morning. The proposed bill, sponsored by Speaker of the House Brian Egolf (D-Santa Fe) and State Rep. Georgene Louis of Acoma Pueblo (D-Albuquerque), is primarily aimed at changes within law enforcement in New Mexico. HB 4 would create a legal pathway for citizens to bring claims in State Court against public officials, primarily law enforcement, who violate their civil rights. The bill also dictates that “qualified immunity,” a federal legal doctrine that makes it nearly impossible to successfully pursue legal action against law enforcement, would be outlawed. Public officials would not be able to use qualified immunity as a defense for wrongdoing, specifically in cases of use of force by law enforcement.

In light of nationwide protests over the officer-involved death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, along with decades of officer-involved shootings in New Mexico, this bill is timely. “If you suffer a violation of your rights or are a victim of wrongdoing, you deserve your day in court,” said Speaker Egolf. “The Civil Rights Act seeks to change that by making enforceable the rights guaranteed to New Mexicans in the State Constitution.”

Under current law constitutional rights abuse claims can only be filed in Federal Court. Under the proposed bill, a citizen would be able to file a claim in any District Court in the state. The Act does not include a cap on damages and also allows for the recovery of attorney fees. Debate over the bill was heavy, as many county governments, specifically those in rural areas, are concerned about the rise in insurance rates they would be required to pay to protect themselves from such lawsuits. “It’s not going to cost any additional money if people’s civil rights aren’t violated,” said Rep. Gail Chasey (D-Bernalillo).

The proposed law also would require all public entities to keep records of all final judgments and settlements for claims made under the New Mexico Civil Rights Act. They would be required to attach a copy of the complaint made to each record and for all judgements, settlements and complaints to be public records under the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act.

After passing the committee with a 5-3 vote, the next step for HB 4 will be to advance to the House Judiciary Committee. If the bill is signed into law by Governor Lujan Grisham, it would be a major step forward in accountability for public officials.

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