Government employees will not be able to use qualified immunity as a legal defense in state court under the recently ratified New Mexico Civil Rights Act.
Laurie Roberts, a state policy advocate for the Innocence Project, says the act will create an easier path for those seeking to bring a claim against a government body, relying on state courts rather than the federal judicial system.
“Instead of having to go to federal court and allege a violation of your federal constitutional rights, instead, you can go to your local district court, in front of a judge or a jury of your peers, you know, a judge elected by New Mexicans,” Roberts said. “And the local governments are not able to use qualified immunity as a defense the way that they would be if you were forced to go into federal court.”
First introduced by the Supreme Court in 1967, qualified immunity is a legal defense granted to government employees such as police officers and social workers. It allows for a defendant to successfully claim immunity if the alleged violation is not clearly established, relying on prior legal decisions with similarities to current cases.
Prior to the passage of the New Mexico legislation, Doña Ana County District Attorney Gerald Byers spoke to KRWG about qualified immunity, stressing that individual government employees need to be financially protected.
“On the one hand qualified immunity, it's a buffer between the government and the government actors and people who are civilly trying to redress a wrong,” Byers said. “But the thing is, is that presents a chilling effect, because if a law enforcement officer, or other government actor, were totally exposed to severe financial penalty just for an act that arose out of them doing their job, that would really chill the desire of people to be public servants.”
Under the New Mexico Civil Rights Act, claims can be brought against a public body, not individual employees themselves, putting the financial liability onto the employer.
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement that the act is an important step toward ensuring all New Mexicans are given the rights endowed to them by the state constitution.
“Good public servants work tirelessly every single day to protect those rights, to ensure them, to safeguard New Mexicans,” Lujan Grisham said. “But when violations do occur, we as Americans know too well that the victims are disproportionately people of color, and that there are too often roadblocks to fighting for those inalienable rights in a court of law.”
New Mexico is the second state to implement a qualified immunity policy, following Colorado’s passage of similar legislation last year—though the Colorado law applies only to those in law enforcement, differing from the all-encompassing New Mexico act.
Roberts emphasized that the act will give citizens the ability to seek financial justice in court as well as spur additional policy measures.
“It provides the incentives that local governments, city governments need, police agencies need, to actually start implementing the policies that will prevent these kinds of constitutional rights violations from happening in the first place,” Roberts said. “There's a broader accountability component that we think is going to lead to real cultural change that will have far reaching effects beyond just the passage of this law.”