Bill to strip qualified immunity from police clears Va. House on re-vote, heads to Senate

By: - September 8, 2020 5:08 pm

Virginia State Police troopers stand outside the Capitol during the hectic final days of the 2019 General Assembly session. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia House of Delegates narrowly passed legislation Tuesday rolling back qualified immunity as a defense against lawsuits alleging police misconduct, reviving the measure just four days after voting it down.

The bill, which now heads to the Senate, has followed a rocky path through the General Assembly and it’s the second time lawmakers in the House have resurrected the measure after initially rejecting it.

Two lawmakers changed their positions between Friday and Tuesday: Dels. Kaye Kory and Ibraheem Samirah, both Democrats from Fairfax.

Samirah chalked up his no-vote to a “miscalculation,” saying he had only voted against it because he believed it wasn’t going to pass and wanted to preserve the ability to ask for the bill to be reconsidered by voting on the prevailing side.

But his vote count was off and in fact the bill would have passed Friday with his support because a member of the GOP caucus, which unanimously opposed the legislation, was away for the day.

“Know this is the top priority for me as a progressive,” Samirah said Tuesday. “My tactic was to make sure it gets out of the House.”

Del. Ibraheem Samirah, D-Fairfax. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Samirah faced sharp criticism from his colleagues over the long weekend. “These issues/lives are not for games, likes retweets or any foolish clown show,” tweeted the bill’s sponsor, Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond.

Kory had abstained from the initial vote, saying she was concerned about the potential impact on local sheriffs because of their status as constitutional officers.

Reforming qualified immunity has become a key demand of protest groups and the bill was endorsed by Democratic leaders in the House and the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. But the bill has faced steep opposition from law enforcement and GOP lawmakers, who worry it will subject officers to frivolous lawsuits and make it harder to recruit and retain police officers.

Supporters argue that police should be subject to the same civil liability for misconduct as professionals like doctors, lawyers and contractors.

It’s unclear how the legislation will be received in the Senate, but the chamber’s court’s committee has already tabled a similar bill proposed by Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond.

If it makes it out of the Senate, both Kory and Samirah have already said there are changes they’d like to see made.

“Although I had concerns about the bill last Friday, I welcomed the reconsideration as an opportunity to do further work with Del. Bourne and my House and Senate colleagues,” wrote Kory.

Del. Kaye Kory, D-Fairfax, speaks on the floor of the House. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Samirah said he wants to see an amendment that would prevent the state’s insurance risk pool from covering the cost of any lawsuits filed against local departments and their officers.

“The people of Virginia should not be paying for the problems of certain localities,” he said. “And localities that are doing a great job of policing should not be paying for the problems caused by other localities.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.