In a rare Sunday meeting of the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee, an anti-police proposal ending qualified immunity, S.B. 376, was rejected on a 3-3 vote. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Joseph Cervantes (D-Doña Ana), appears it would personally benefit his law practice. Cervantes practices civil litigation himself, which the passage of S.B. 376 would benefit.
During the committee hearing, Cervantes said the bill would “assure that the Tort Claims Act squares with the initiatives and the efforts being made in the Civil Rights Act. If we do not adjust the Tort Claims Act at the same time, we would be adopting the Civil Rights Act, we would have different laws and different standards that are in conflict.” The Civil Rights Act, H.B. 4, is being sponsored by Speaker of the Hosue Brian Egolf, and he would benefit from the passage of his bill.
“It makes it especially hard to settle small cases… Given the poverty in our state, given the incredible needs of our community, is this the best use of precious, I would say, taxpayer dollars?” asked attorney Grace Philips of the New Mexico Association of Counties.
Douglas Ford, Chief of Police at Clovis Police Department, said, “This legislation would bring more frivolous lawsuits into our police departments.” He continued, “We continue to bring district against our law enforcement and cause an unnecessary separation between our citizens and our police officers.”
“This kind of bill will again enhance the villainization of our law enforcement, which is not healthy for our communities or our police officers who serve and protect them. This is more legislation [that] is going to cause good police officers to leave our state and to leave their duties in this state or to leave this profession completely. And we are already seeing that now with all the legislation, the negative rhetoric, and what we’ve been seeing throughout the country and throughout what’s been going on with this state and bills that have been put forward that are affecting law enforcement.”
Another commenter and attorney, Martin Esquivel, said, “The statute of limitations presently for the Tort Claims Act is two years, and this ups it to three. So, if you look at premiums for some of the larger school districts like Santa Fe, Las Cruces, Rio Rancho, they average anywhere from four to six million dollars. What will it mean to their budgets? Potentially, anywhere from a 10-20 percent increase in risk premiums given the exposed liability. That could be anything from three hundred to five hundred thousand dollars that comes out of their operating budget to pay the additional exposure. That is a hit coming out of actual school budgets.”
The bill died with two Democrats, Sen. Liz Stefanics (D-Bernalillo, Lincoln, San Miguel, Santa Fe, Torrance, and Valencia) and Sen. Bill Tallman (D-Bernalillo) voting with Republican Sen. David Gallegos (R-Eddy & Lea) against the measure. Two Republicans were absent for the vote, so if the committee moves to vote again on the measure, it is still headed for certain death.