A Closer Look: the debate over qualified immunity and what it means

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BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) – A bill that took years of effort and compromise passed out of the House. Representative Edmond Jordan brought a bill that would remove qualified immunity from police officers if they were found to have violated someone’s constitutional rights. The debate brought some emotional testimony on Tuesday.

“We live in two different Americas, we live in two different Louisianas and some of the issues that we face I pray to god you never have to face,” Rep. Jordan said.

He called back to his speech in 2020 when he first brought his bill. His speech and others touched on the issue across the country of people of color not being able to seek lawsuits when they feel a police officer violated their rights due to qualified immunity.

That immunity protects police from things such as using excessive force as long as it does not violate established law. Some see there are loopholes in the established law, which is why some see the need for the bill.

The case of George Floyd is often brought up in arguments about peeling back some police qualified immunity. Representative Edward ‘Ted’ James II had his own examples that hit closer to home.

“Then when we left here we learned the name of Trooper Jacob Brown and his victim [Aaron] Bowman,” Rep. James said. “Then we learned Trooper Chris Hollingsworth and his victim Ronald Greene. So this is a Louisiana problem.”

Aaron Bowman and Ronald Greene were beaten with flashlights by troopers. Greene died from his injuries.

A court would have to determine if an officer had violated someone’s rights. The burden of proof will be on the person filing against the officer. The bill was amended and worked on between sessions with a task force composed of Rep. Jordan and law enforcement agencies across the state. He has the support of the Sheriff’s Association and Louisiana Chiefs of Police among others that helped form the revised bill. Lawmakers received notes that the Fraternal Order of Police opposed the bill even though they were on the task force and did not previously object to the bill.

Representative Bryan Fontenot, a former police officer, brought up how he had been sued multiple times in his tenure as an officer. He said people bring frivolous lawsuits against officers and the “foot soldiers” of law enforcement do not support the bill. He proposed his own amendment that would make the plaintiff responsible for the court fees if they lose the case against the officer.

“If you don’t think it’s fair that a law enforcement officer has to go defend himself against false claims then stand and protect them right now,” Rep. Fontenot said. “That says if you sue me falsely you owe me and you owe the government that’s representing your tax dollars the money back that they expunged to protect you.”

The amendment was passed even as some described the amendment as ‘a poison pill’ and say it would dissuade people from wanting to file their lawsuit for violated rights if there was a possibility of the added cost. Representative Barry Ivey proposed another amendment after Rep. Fontenot to change the language to just frivolous lawsuits, which a court can determine if the case is viable. His amendment did not pass. Rep James took the stand to share his view on the changes.

“This whole process has come down to one word and that’s ‘frivolous’ because some of you think that the issue we are trying to solve is frivolous,” Rep. James said. “Some of you think that the issue of dead black and brown bodies at the hands of police officers is frivolous.”

In his closing on the bill, Rep. Jordan talked about how this bill has had the goal posts moved multiple times and with the addition of the amendments that waters down the bill it is another moved goal post. He vowed to keep fighting for his bill to help people who feel they can’t take on the police who violate the law.

“I take that responsibility and I take that hit and I take this job very very seriously,” Rep. Jordan said. 

In the end, the bill passed with the exact number of votes it needed to advance out of the House. Members of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus celebrated with Rep. Jordan with hugs and cheers after the vote.

Some are concerned about the fate of the bill with the extra amendment but it still passed head to Senate committee for further debate.

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