House panel revives bill ending qualified immunity for police

Thousands of people marched through downtown Richmond on June 1, 2020. The peaceful demonstration was one of the largest gatherings in the city since George Floyd's death in Minneapolis. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Lawmakers on Virginia’s House Appropriations Committee revived a bill aimed at making it easier to sue police officers for misconduct, voting Tuesday to send the measure for a vote before the full chamber.

The decision came less than 24 hours after the same panel voted the bill down, with two Democrats joining Republicans in opposing the legislation.

The proposal would allow lawsuits alleging constitutional violations by police to proceed in state court, an approach aimed at side-stepping the judicial doctrine of “qualified immunity” that often shields police from such claims at the federal level, where they currently must be filed.

Democratic leaders in the House and the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus had listed the legislation as a priority heading into the special session and the issue has drawn nationwide attention amid widespread unrest following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, who proposed the bill, said he was surprised Monday when the legislation failed in committee and asked members of the panel Tuesday to reconsider a revised version of the bill, which they ultimately accepted on a 12-8 vote.

The changes addressed a “last-minute concern” raised by Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun, over language in the bill that would’ve made law enforcement agencies liable for the actions of sworn officers working off-duty security jobs. The revised version shifts that liability to the private companies employing the off-duty officers.

“I want to thank Delegate Bourne,” Reid, who had opposed the bill Monday, said. “He and I spoke a couple of times yesterday and we were able to work through this particular item.”

Tuesday’s vote suggests the measure could potentially pass the full House, but it will likely face bipartisan opposition in the Senate, where lawmakers have already voted down a version of the bill introduced by Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond.

Law enforcement groups and Republican lawmakers have argued the legislation would subject officers to frivolous lawsuits and make it harder for police departments to hire and retain officers.

“When you talk to, whether it be representatives of the State Police or local law enforcement, this is the (bill) they fear,” said Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights. “Because they feel like without qualified immunity they will lose a tremendous amount of folks, not only from their current ranks but from their recruitment going into a tailspin.”

Democrats who support the legislation argued the bill doesn’t mean plaintiffs who file suit will necessarily win, only that it will entitle them to have their case heard before a judge or jury. They also noted police departments and their insurance policies — not individual officers — cover the cost of defending employees against lawsuits and paying any damages awarded.

“I watched the George Floyd video,” said Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk. “I could feel that officer’s knee on my neck as I watched it. I could feel the bullets in my back as I watched the video of Jacob Blake. This is a chance for Virginia to do the right thing and to do right by people. I promise you this will not have the financial impact, the chilling effect people say it is. Those are red herrings. This is an opportunity for our citizens to have their constitutional rights protected.”

Mercury Staff Writer Graham Moomaw contributed to this report.