A Virginia Senate panel on Thursday rejected a bill that would make it easier for people to sue police officers and their agencies liable in civil court for civil rights violations — almost certainly killing any chances for legislation on the issue this special session.
The Democrat-controlled Judiciary panel voted 12-3 vote to delay passage of the bill indefinitely and to set up a subcommittee to work on the issue.
Opposing the legislation were Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax; Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City; and Sens. John Edwards, D-Roanoke; Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham; Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover; Richard Stuart, R-King George; Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County; Ben Chafin, R-Russell; Creigh Deeds, D-Bath; Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax County; Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, and Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax.
In support of the bill were President Pro Tempore Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and Democratic Sens. Jennifer McClellan and Joe Morrissey, both of Richmond.
Ending “qualified immunity” — a doctrine that shields individual police officers and their governing bodies from civil liability for violations of constitutional rights — has been a key demand of police reform protests in Richmond and elsewhere.
Protesters have pushed for fewer protections for officers who err. The bill’s sponsor, Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, said the bill boils down to: “Are we going to allow Virginians to avail themselves of our state court systems when their constitutional rights have been violated?”
Senators on both sides of the aisle argued that the bill could over-burden police officers and their agencies for minor violations of citizens' civil rights — particularly given that officers often face split second decisions.
“Officers have to make split second judgments all the time, and very difficult decisions when their lives are on the line,” said Stuart. “They could be held personally liable and sued for everything they and their family have — basically become impoverished — from a mistaken judgment. And it doesn't even require an intentional or malicious act on their part.”
Surovell an influential Democrat on the topic of criminal justice reform, said that as written the bill could lead to lawsuits due to people being wrongly pulled over or denied hunting permits.
Bourne argued that “most of the cases” involving violations of constitutional rights “do not involve exigent, split-second decisions.” Bourne pointed to the high-profile shooting of Jacob Blake, who was paralyzed after being shot in the back by police in Kenosha, Wis. on Aug. 23.
Morrissey attempted to salvage the bill by adding language that would hold officers and departments liable only for intentional police brutality or excessive use of force. Morrissey’s amendment did not receive a vote.
McClellan said she had hoped Senate lawmakers would have worked on Bourne's bill to address concerns. “We take the time to deal with things that are complicated all the time,” she said.
The senator said her family has come close to harm that would have faced no redress. “When in the Fan in Richmond, my father came to my house to water plants, and because my neighbor's mother had never seen him before, called the police,” McClellan said. “My father realized police were there because he felt a gun in his back.”
“When something happens, there is no recourse,” she added.
Lucas said she “is not the least bit torn about supporting the bill,” a key police reform measure.
“If you look like me, most of us are afraid of the police officers in our communities,” Lucas said.
The bill’s outlook in the Senate always appeared treacherous. The same panel had rejected a similar bill introduced by Morrissey earlier this session, referring it for further study to a panel within the Virginia Bar Association.
On Thursday, the bill was scheduled for a hearing just hours before the Senate panel was to vote on it — a move that prompted criticism from supporters who accused Senate leaders of attempting to suppress voices in support of the bill.
“A last-minute committee hearing without public comment is happening this afternoon,” the ACLU of Virginia alerted followers on Twitter, urging them to contact lawmakers to express support of the bill.
The bill had narrowly cleared the House of Delegates on Tuesday in a 49-45 vote — a re-vote after the House had rejected the measure last week.
Some Democrats in the Senate pointed to a police reform omnibus bill the Senate passed earlier on Thursday that included limits on no-knock warrants and choke holds, and that would make it easier to decertify police officers for misconduct. Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, introduced that measure.
Before voting against Bourne's bill, Boysko referred to McClellan's comments.
“The personal story of my good friend from Richmond is painful to hear. As is the story that Delegate Bourne talked about, having to teach his children that they're going to be treated differently.
"However, I also had the expectation that the bill that we passed earlier today on police reform is going to be addressing a lot of those wrongdoings.
“Have we not made adequate progress? So that those people are protected better?”
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