Ending immunity bid fails before House panel

·3 min read

May 18—CONCORD — A bid to expand the rights of victims to sue police and government agencies for damages fell way short in a House committee Tuesday.

The 14-7 vote by the House Judiciary Committee likely means the campaign to end so-called qualified immunity is over for the 2021 legislative session.

The decision also means the legislative recommendations of Gov. Chris Sununu's Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency (LEACT) soon will be on their way to becoming law later this spring.

Advocates for ending qualified immunity had tried to add their proposal to the LEACT-supported bill (SB 96) that will create a fund to help finance body and dashboard cameras for local police departments.

The Judiciary Committee made a small change to this Senate-passed bill — to require judge to attend two hours of training each year on implicit bias and racial profiling. The Senate bill only encouraged judges to get this training.

The full House will take up the committee's recommendation in early June.

Last month, the challenge to qualified immunity had a lot more support. The same House committee had voted 19-2 in favor of a similar proposal in a separate bill (HB 111).

On April 9, the House voted to table that measure after it narrowly failed, 188-180.

After nearly two hours of testimony on this latest provision, a key supporter, Rep. Marjorie Smith, D-Durham, said it was too risky to add limiting qualified immunity to the police reform measure.

"This is the right pew, but I believe it is the wrong church," Smith said. "The work that has gone on in LEACT has to be respected."

Opposition mobilizes

State Rep. Paul Berch, D-Westmoreland, said he tried to make this new proposal more palatable by making it clear only government entities like police departments could be sued for damages, not individual officers.

"This legislation guarantees the citizens of our state have a right to go to court to redress harms done by the government," Berch said.

Jerry Greenfield, co-founder of the Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream franchise, urged the panel to make this change.

"If you want to build public trust in policing, honor and support good law enforcement." Greenfield said.

Public employees and their supporters mobilized to oppose this latest idea.

Only 26 signed up in support of the bill Tuesday, while 1,178 registered their opposition.

"This amendment punishes the municipality for good- and bad-acting public employees," said Franklin City Manager Judie Milner, who warned it would discourage people from seeking government jobs.

"This makes it near impossible to replace our aging municipal work force."

Senior Assistant Attorney General Matthew Broadhead opposed the bill, as did Safety Commissioner Robert Quinn and leading police and fire chiefs from across the state.

"The original bill was built on consensus. This kind of risks torpedoing what progress we need to make on police reform and transparency," Broadhead said.

The panel voted, 11-10, to reject adding to this bill the requirement that all police departments collect and annually report racial data on traffic stops. The change also would have required someone's race be identified on a driver's license unless the motorist opted out of the program.

The LEACT commission had recommended the data collection and driver license proposals. The Senate stripped them out, replacing them with a study committee on the matter.

klandrigan@unionleader.com