The Bulletin

General Assembly again rejects proposals to repeal qualified immunity

By: - February 1, 2021 12:53 pm

A Dumpster fire burns behind a line of Virginia State Police officers near Richmond’s police headquarters during a protest responding to the death of George Floyd. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Lawmakers in the Virginia House and Senate have once again rejected legislation aimed at making it easier to pursue misconduct lawsuits against police officers, promising to study the issue and revisit it in future legislative sessions.

A federal doctrine known as qualified immunity, which often protects police from civil rights claims, drew nationwide scrutiny last year after the death of George Floyd. Rolling back those protections became a top priority for some criminal justice reform advocates.

But proposals to allow such lawsuits proceed unhindered in state courts have drawn bi-partisan skepticism in Virginia amid intense opposition from law enforcement groups, who framed the legislation as an attack on the profession that would make it impossible to recruit and retain police officers.

After failing to reach an agreement on the issue during a special legislative session in September, lawmakers in the House and Senate took slightly different approaches to the bill this year. In the House, Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, proposed legislation that would broadly allow lawsuits alleging police misconduct to proceed in state courts. In the Senate, Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, proposed narrower legislation that only addressed claims involving excessive force, deadly force and neck restraints.

His legislation also specified that the local government that employ officers — not the officers themselves — would be liable for any damages awarded by a jury or judge.

“It’s an approach that’s much narrower,” Surovell said. “It focuses only on law enforcement breaking rules in ways that hurt people physically.”

Lawmakers in both the House and Senate committees that reviewed the respective bills worried the legislation required more review.

In the House, lawmakers asked the Virginia Crime Commission to study the bill. In the Senate, lawmakers planned to convene a subcommittee to review the legislation later this year.

“We all know the current system, the current way qualified immunity is working, does not work. Or at least in too many terribly tragic circumstances does not work,” said Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax, saying it was with “a pretty heavy heart” that he supported killing the legislation for the year.

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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. Contact him at [email protected]