On April 7, 2021, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham ratified the New Mexico Civil Rights Act, a piece of legislation that effectively protects state residents’ constitutional civil rights by prohibiting the use of qualified immunity as a defense for violations of the civil rights guaranteed by New Mexico’s state Constitution. . Thus, this legislation strengthens the rights and privileges of all state residents, as outlined in both the New Mexico Constitution and Bill of Rights.
What Is Qualified Immunity?
Qualified immunity has become the topic of contentious debate, as it makes it difficult to hold public bodies, government officials, and law enforcement officers accountable for violating individuals’ constitutional rights. But what exactly is qualified immunity and how does it do this?
To put it simply, qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that protects government officials from being sued over constitutional violations, as long as they were not in violation of “clearly established” laws at the time. The doctrine has long been an issue for New Mexico residents, and with national attention now on police brutality, current debate around qualified immunity often centers on how it has been used to protect law enforcement officers who have committed unlawful acts.
For instance, if qualified immunity is used as a defense, the plaintiff (the person suing) is required to establish that (a) the conduct was, in fact, unlawful and(b) the officer in question should have known they were acting unlawfully because a previous court case already ruled that such actions were unlawful. Since it is often nearly impossible for a plaintiff to prove the second criterion — to do so requires the existence of a similar case — governmental officials have effectively used qualified immunity to escape accountability after violating people’s constitutional rights, such as in cases alleging the excessive and even deadly use of force by law enforcement officers.
“Recent events, including the death of George Floyd and the trial of Officer Derek Chauvin, have highlighted the importance of access to justice to ensure civil rights are protected for all people, and particularly people of color, who are disproportionately affected by civil rights violations,” the acclaimed attorney team of McGinn, Montoya, Love & Curry stated. “This has become difficult to do in federal court as the defense of qualified immunity makes it harder and harder to ensure government entities take responsibility when abuses take place."
‘A Huge Step Forward’
The New Mexico Civil Rights Act is a harbinger of progress and makes New Mexico the second state, joining Colorado, to pass legislation ending qualified immunity for violations of civil rights guaranteed by New Mexico’s state constitution, by authorizing these claims to be brought in state court. The act will go into effect July 1, 2021 and will “finally [give] those who have their civil rights violated a path to justice in state court,” explained New Mexico Speaker of the House Brian Egolf, who introduced the bill, in a press release.
“We will soon have a clear path to justice and a meaningful way to hold government accountable,” House Speaker Egolf tweeted after the bill’s passage. “This is a bright day for the New Mexico Constitution.”
Our McGinn, Montoya, Love & Curry lawyers recognize the historic nature of the Civil Rights Act and view it as “a huge step forward for our state.” For more than 35 years, our civil rights lawyers have helped New Mexico residents hold government officials and law enforcement officers accountable if they choose to violate New Mexicans’ civil rights. As such, we are already building lawsuits with the Civil Rights Act in mind, and we look forward to litigating these claims once the law goes into effect.
If you are seeking legal assistance, contact our New Mexico firm online or call us at (505) 405-4441 to book a free consultation.