New Mexicans have long been outraged that police rarely face consequences for their misconduct, largely because of a legal doctrine known as “qualified immunity.” While this doctrine was originally intended to protect law enforcement and other civil servants from frivolous lawsuits, it has the result of shielding public officials from being sued for damages in many cases involving police misconduct.
In practice, qualified immunity often prevents citizens from successfully suing state and local law enforcement for violating their rights, and it is a giant roadblock to true accountability in our criminal justice system.
I should know. In 1975, I came within nine days of execution at the New Mexico State Penitentiary for a murder I didn’t commit because of the egregious misconduct of the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department. Those officers used coercion and bribery to elicit false testimony from a motel maid, they fabricated evidence and they suborned perjury. They supplied this star witness with details of the crime, and they threatened her with jail time when she tried to recant her story before actually arresting her on the charge of accessory to the murder.
Even after I was convicted, local officials threatened a journalist investigating the case on my behalf. At every step of the way, police officers and prosecutors violated my constitutional rights, undermined public trust in justice and used their power to destroy my life.
Ultimately, I spent 22 months on New Mexico’s death row before I was exonerated. The actual killer confessed and was convicted a few years later. Because of the corruption surrounding my case, the assistant prosecutor was disbarred, and three sheriff detectives were fired. But after this deeply traumatic experience, the only person I was able to sue was the state medical examiner, who took a $50,000 bribe to lie on the stand. Because of qualified immunity, I was never able to obtain any kind of justice against the police.
Imagine that. These officers behaved so badly that they were fired, but I still wasn’t able to hold them truly civilly responsible for the horror they inflicted on me. More important than any dollar amount, I wanted everyone to know that I was innocent and that the state did this to me. I wanted accountability. I still do, 45 years later. This is why I believe so strongly that New Mexico must eliminate qualified immunity. Without this mechanism to hold bad actors accountable, state officials will continue to violate people’s rights with impunity, and wrongfully convicted people like me will never be able to achieve some small measure of justice.
New Mexico desperately needs of this reform. For example, a 2017 court ruling found that a New Mexico State Police officer violated a man’s constitutional rights after he shot and killed him at his home in Glorieta in 2011, but the court still granted the officer qualified immunity. It’s decisions like these that send the message that police officers can disregard the law without consequence.
House Speaker Brian Egolf recognizes this problem, and his bill just passed during the recent special session is an important first step. In its original form, the new law would establish a civil rights commission to recommend unambiguous legislative reforms to limit or eliminate qualified immunity. The commission is also tasked with creating a specific mechanism to sue state officials for their misconduct. But bad amendments from the Senate have watered down the bill; now, the commission will merely “review” qualified immunity instead of proactively developing legislation.
Colorado took an even bolder step earlier this year by ending qualified immunity outright. New Mexico could have done the same, without the extra step of establishing this commission. But now that it is done, the commission must be bold. This problem is too urgent to hide behind more studies. They will have a chance to develop the most significant civil rights legislation in a generation.
When people do bad things while acting on behalf of the state, the government is responsible. When they destroy someone’s life and then walk away, it is wrong. Ending qualified immunity is just a first step towards a criminal justice system that actually works for New Mexicans. But for victims of police misconduct, it would mean more than most people could ever truly know. It is up to us to ensure this civil rights commission actually follows through.
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