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Just days after a young Santa Fe County woman filed a lawsuit accusing law enforcement officers of detaining her at gunpoint in what she calls an unconstitutional search, the state House of Representatives passed a bill that advocates say would strengthen such a claim.
The House voted 39-29 in favor of a proposed New Mexico Civil Rights Act, which would allow residents to file claims of civil rights violations against government agencies in state District Court. The measure, which has drawn widespread criticism from government officials and law enforcement, in part over the potential costs of lawsuits, faces a more uncertain outlook in the Senate.
But state Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, one of the sponsors of House Bill 4, is optimistic about the measure’s chances — and its potential effects.
“With government confronting a push to redress from people who suffer from these civil rights abuses, ideally government will get much more proactive to make sure they don’t occur” if the bill becomes law, he said.
Cervantes, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the bill likely will be heard by that panel before it goes to the full Senate.
“I think we’ll have a very detailed look at it in that committee and address any lingering concerns that come over from the House version,” he said. “With that, we will work to address those concerns so we can get strong support from the Senate as a whole.”
Several senators, including President Pro Tempore Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said they had not yet seen the House amendments to the bill and needed to study them before commenting.
The House vote did not fall squarely along party lines. Five Democrats and one independent joined Republicans in opposing it.
The newly formed New Mexico Civil Rights Commission, created by the state Legislature in June, initiated the idea of a civil rights act in a report late last year. But some members of that commission argued HB 4 does nothing to address the real issue of constitutional violations.
“We’re only addressing the results, not the problem,” said Rep. Gail Armstrong, D-Magdalena, during Tuesday’s debate.
Currently, lawsuits alleging violations of U.S. constitutional rights are typically filed in federal court, a process some say is cumbersome and less convenient than filing a claim in a state District Court.
HB 4 would create a path to filing similar claims in a state court — but the suits would instead cite violations under the New Mexico Bill of Rights.
One section of that article of the state constitution protects residents against unlawful search and seizure.
It therefore could apply to a case like that filed Feb. 11 in the state’s First Judicial District Court by Yatsiri Manriquez. She alleges Santa Fe County sheriff’s deputies and New Mexico State Police violated her Fourth Amendment right in 2018, when they pulled over a truck she was riding in on N.M. 503, handcuffed her and held her at gunpoint as they investigated a homicide in Edgewood she says she had no connection to.
She was 16 at the time, according to the complaint, which seeks punitive and compensatory damages, among other types of relief.
HB 4 would remove the legal doctrine of qualified immunity as a defense in such claims. Qualified immunity often is used to shield law enforcement officers and public officials from being held liable for improper actions on the job. However, the bill would not allow a lawsuit to be filed against an individual government worker or official. It only creates a path for civil rights suits against government agencies.
The debate about qualified immunity has intensified across the country following the death in May of an unarmed Black man from Minneapolis, George Floyd, who was killed in police custody. The slaying fueled scores of nationwide protests against police brutality.
Qualified immunity was created by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1960s to protect public officials from frivolous lawsuits. Police officers accused of using executive force also have relied on it to avoid litigation.
The doctrine applies to civil rights cases filed in federal court, which is one reason advocates say HB 4 is needed in New Mexico.
The bill also calls for a three-year statute of limitations on court actions and allows plaintiffs to ask for compensatory, but not punitive, damages of up to $2 million.
That cap is much higher than the maximum payout under the state’s Tort Claims Act, which allows residents to sue government employees and agencies over personal injury, death or damage to property. The highest total award for a claim under that law is $750,000.
Several House Republicans argued against HB 4 on Tuesday, saying it could open up state and local government agencies to lawsuits that could cripple their ability to operate.
Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, asked if the measure would allow person to file a lawsuit against someone who had made a “human error.”
“A violation of civil rights is not a human error,” replied Rep. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque, who co-sponsored the bill with Cervantes and House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe. “It is bigger than that.”
Louis called the issue a “David v. Goliath” battle that requires legislative action.
At least six states, including Colorado, have some form of a civil rights act.
The New Mexico measure, if signed into law by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, would become effective June 18, 90 days after this year’s legislative session ends. It is not retroactive, Louis said.