RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — On Thursday, Virginia House Democrats narrowly advanced a bill to eliminate qualified immunity–a legal defense that often prevents officers from facing civil lawsuits.
The legislation cleared the second of three procedural readings on a 47-45 vote. Three Democrats sided with Republicans opposing the bill, including Dels. David Buvola, Stephen Heretick and Martha Mugler. Five other Democrats didn’t vote one way or the other.
Supporters of the bill say the legal bar is too high for law enforcement to be held accountable for misconduct and excessive force.
When a public employee is accused of violating someone’s constitutional rights, qualified immunity shields them from liability if, based on clearly established law, that person could have reasonably believed their actions were justified.
The bill being debated in the special session would remove this protection for law enforcement officers, making it easier for citizens to seek redress.
“To my friends on the right who preach liberty and freedom, this is a bill that you should support because it is giving every citizen the opportunity to be heard in a court of law,” said Del. Jay Jones (D-Norfolk), a co-sponsor of the bill.
“It is a bill that is going to save lives,” said Del. Don Scott (D-Portsmouth). “It is going to allow for law enforcement agencies to be more diligent about who they hire.”
Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police Spokesperson Dana Schrad said this bill has drawn more opposition than any other being considered in the special session.
“I can tell you many people have reached out to us saying they’re retiring if this passes,” Schrad said. “We’re scared to death about a mass exodus of officers, including our law enforcement leaders.”
House Republicans have argued that this doctrine is necessary to protect officers who have to make split-second decisions in dangerous situations, especially ones that aren’t black-and-white from a legal perspective. Generally, the caucus has complained that Democrats are rushing reforms across the finish line without fully considering the unintended consequences.
“Everyday, when they [officers] walk out that door, they put their lives on the line and their spouses know they might not be coming home,” said Del. Glenn David (R-Virginia Beach). “We don’t get to get this wrong.”
The majority vote by the full House chamber comes after the bill was killed in committee earlier this week.
One day later, it was revived with some changes to satisfy critics. Del. Jeffrey Bourne (D-Richmond City), who introduced the bill, said the old version would’ve held employers liable for an officer’s actions while they were off-duty but in uniform. In the new version, he said that liability is no longer automatic.
“This bill is much narrower at this point than it was when it was first introduced,” said Bourne.
Even with the changes, the bill faces an uphill battle in the Senate, where some Democrats already shot down a similar proposal.
Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) said the issue is too complicated for a special session, especially since the General Assembly has never seriously considered eliminating qualified immunity before.
“We were concerned whether we would have enough time to vet it, take input from all the different stakeholders and make sure we do the right thing,” Surovell said.
“Abolishing qualified immunity has extremely broad consequences that will affect over 400 law enforcement agencies. Police do a lot more than just arrest people so it could play into a lot of other facets of their responsibilities,” he continued.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Del. Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria), who voted in favor of the bill on Thursday, said some police reforms are too important to wait.
“Some of the things that you see on the agenda are difficult…but we were elected to do what is difficult,” Herring said.
The bill still needs to win approval in the House of Delegates one more time before it officially passes. If that happens, it will go back to the Senate for consideration.