RICHMOND, Virginia – The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday voted to pass by indefinitely and create a joint House-Senate sub-Committee to further discuss a bill to end the qualified immunity defense for law enforcement.
The motion to pass by indefinitely was agreed to by a vote of 12-Y 3-N with six Democratic Senators voting alongside their Republican peers on the prevailing side.
The bill’s sponsor from the House, Del. Jeff Bourne (D-Richmond City, was able to address the Committee members at the beginning of the meeting.
“Mr. Chairman, members of the committee we have had and continue to have the opportunity to really move the ball forward on justice reform in Virginia,” Bourne said. “I would submit this is one of the most consequential bills that we will deal with and while there will not be a panacea for black and brown communities across Virginia, this [bill] will make their lives a little better.”
Many of the senators on the Judiciary Committee are also practicing lawyers and had lots of concerns with the language of the bill, which members from both sides of the isle called too broad.
“The way Delegate Bourne’s bill is drafted, a police officer could be sued and be liable personally for any mistake he made on the job,” Sen. Richard Stuart (R-Prince William County) said in an interview with The Virginia Star. “I don’t think that is what anybody intends, people are looking at intentional acts of brutality or intentional acts of excessive force.
“[Bourne’s bill] was drafted so broadly [that] even if it was determined that an officer had acted in a reasonable way, but it was unlawful, he still could have been held liable personally.”
Several Democratic members who said they agreed that some changes should be made to qualified immunity, also pointed out that the legislation does not offer a clear standard for what constitutes someone being deprived of their constitutional or civil rights.
“What is the standard by which a jury would judge the officer’s conduct? That’s what I don’t see in this bill,” Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax County) said. “I understand the immunity argument, in fact, I agree with you that qualified immunity is something that needs to be not just looked [but] perhaps revised, the problem is you have a cause of action with absolutely no standard.
“I can’t think of a single profession in this Commonwealth where if I’m sued as an attorney for malpractice or a physician is sued there is not some standard, which says whether or not they did or did not achieve that standard in their conduct.”
Senators argued that the combination of the bill’s language being too broad with no set conduct standard would leave law enforcement officers liable for any little issue someone may have, such as an illegal traffic stop or other examples.
The only Senators who voted against the motion to pass by indefinitely were Louise Lucas (D-Chesapeake), Jennifer McClellan (D-Henrico County) and Joseph Morrissey (D-Richmond City)
The bill, however, is not totally dead thanks to the decision to form a joint sub-committee.
The House first has to agree to form the joint sub-committee and then each body had to designate a several members to sit on the committee, according to Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax County).
Nevertheless, the timeline for when the bill is actually going to be discussed again, let alone voted on, is murky because the joint sub-committee will meet whenever the members “get around to it” between the special session and the regular session in January, Sen. John Edwards (D-Montgomery County) said.
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