NM Bans Qualified Immunity
San Juan County Leaders discuss the potential risks to educators and law enforcement
May 21, 2021
New Mexico just became the second state in the United States to abolish qualified immunity for all government employees.
The concept of qualified immunity granted government employees protection from being sued by victims of crimes committed by government workers.
This new law could create a new way to challenge all government agencies, including schools, that would allegedly violate constitutional rights, says David Karst, Bloomfield Chief of Police, in an interview with the Radar.
Gov. Lujan Grisham signed the bill on April 7 and continues to be debated.
By making it so much easier to sue any government employee, such as police officers, for damage or violation, the New Mexico Civil Rights Act is one of the most critical police reform bills passed since the death of George Floyd dominated the news.
NM Legislator Brian Egolf is a Civil Rights Attorney from Santa Fe. He is the Speaker of the House and sponsored bill.
WENY.com reported Egolf as saying that, “One of the goals is to make it easier for New Mexicans to access justice and put them on a shorter path to their day in court.”
Bloomfield Chief of Police, David Karst sees the new law a little differently.
“He [Egolf] wrote two things that should be noted: One of them being that judges and legislators cannot be sued, which includes himself, so now he’s covered,” Karst said. “He also wrote in, that the court can allow lawyer fees to be paid by the opposite person.”
This means if a victim sues the government and they settle with them, the government may be required to pay your lawyer fees, Karst explained.
“He also raised the amount you can sue me [a police officer] for up to 2 million dollars for each alleged occurrence,” Karst says.
Karst is also worried that the new law could be interpreted to include teachers, fire fighters, and other government employees, not just law enforcement.
“So, teachers, anybody that’s employed by the government, can now be sued too,” he said. “Whereas before, they couldn’t be sued for any alleged civil rights violation.”
An example that Karst mentioned that stood out is, "if [a teacher] tells you to quit talking in class, you, [the student], can say, ‘hey, she violated my civil right to free speech, that’s a civil rights violation.’ Now you can sue your teacher.”
The Farmington NM District superintendent, Dr. Eugene Schmidt, said via email, that under current law, public school employees have qualified immunity and the employee can't be sued as an individual but as a school employee.
“Once the new law goes into effect,” he wrote, “any case will be investigated by the district. In addition, Farmington would inform the district's legal counsel as well as the district's insurance carrier, who would also assign an independent investigator to view the claim.”
Schmidt also said, “any public employee, including school staff, can be subject to a lawsuit. However, the claim must be filed in the person's name within the agency for whom the employee works.“
When asked if there were any cases that he knew of where school employees have been protected by qualified immunity, Schmidt replied, “I have no knowledge of any cases.”