SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – A bill that would let New Mexicans sue in state court for civil rights violations made it out of the House chamber on a 39-29 vote. One of the session’s most controversial bills, House Bill 4, was met with heated debate. The bill stems from last year’s protests after people took to the streets calling for more racial justice and wanting more accountability for law enforcement.
“Unfortunately, right now, too many people don’t feel a sense of trust in the government,” said Rep. Georgene Louis (D- Albuquerque). “And we are going to repair the trust between government agencies and the communities they serve, we need to provide avenues of accountability.”
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The ‘Civil Rights Act’ would let New Mexicans file lawsuits in state court, rather than federal, against government agencies if they believe their civil rights were violated under the New Mexico Bill of Rights. One of the biggest debates in this bill is that it would not allow qualified immunity to be used as a defense in state court. However, the bill was changed so that any individuals like teachers, law enforcement officers, or other state employees could not be sued individually; only holding the governmental entities solely accountable. Opponents argue that this could financially hurt smaller cities and rural counties.
“The argument that this legislation would deal with the whole ‘bad actor’ I think is a bit of a reach,” said Rep. Greg Nibert (R- Roswell). “And it’s one that we’re holding the government entities and the government of the state accountable for those bad actors.”
The bill puts a $2-million-cap on damages. A handful of Democrats crossed party lines and voted ‘no’ but the bill still passed the House; It now heads to the Senate. There is another proposed bill, Senate Bill 376, at the Roundhouse that would also prohibit the use of qualified immunity in some cases but it instead makes changes to the state’s tort claims act.