Legislation that called for ending qualified immunity for Virginia police failed Monday after opponents argued it would result in frivolous lawsuits and make it difficult to hire and retain police officers.
The bill would have allowed people who allege police violations of their civil rights to sue and collect money damages in state courts, ending the immunity that shields them from liability. It was defeated when two Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee voted with Republicans against reporting it to the full House.
The defeat stunned the bill's chief patron, Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, who called the vote “disheartening.” He said the committee had “squandered a great opportunity” during a special legislative session focused on criminal justice and police reforms following the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“Qualified immunity is effectively denying access to justice in a lot of respects,” Bourne said.
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“This is yet another thumb in the eye to Black voters and Black people's issues,” he added.
Del. David Bulova, one of the Democrats who voted against the bill, said he supports reforming qualified immunity, but said he wants to see details of the bill studied further so it can be debated during the 2021 legislative session.
“We need to get the details right because they really do matter,” Bulova said. “If we get it wrong, there can be serious consequences for law enforcement and those they are trying to protect.”
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Wayne Huggins, executive director of the Virginia State Police Association, testified against the bill, saying it could result “in a huge increase in frivolous lawsuits” and hurt efforts to hire and retain qualified police officers.
A similar bill failed in the Senate last week when the Judiciary Committee voted to send the proposal for further study.
Bourne said he was puzzled by the opposition. He noted that eliminating qualified immunity has been one of the key police reforms called for during nationwide protests over police brutality and racial injustice.
“Eliminating qualified immunity is not putting a thumb on the scales of justice," Bourne said. “It simply allows those victims and their families to have their day in court."