Colorado Blocks Qualified Immunity for Police

The Colorado statehouse. (Courthouse News photo/Chris Marshall)

DENVER (CN) — Colorado commemorated Juneteenth on Friday by passing an enormous police-reform bill, which includes blocking qualified immunity as a defense for police officers in state court.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis described the new law as an important step in fighting institutionalized racism and restoring trust in law enforcement.

“As we know, Juneteenth did not mark the end of racism in our country nor did it even begin to end the racial inequities that really plague so many aspects of our society,” Polis said in a press conference before signing the Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act into law.

The law makes body-cameras mandatory for all state law enforcement agencies interacting with the public and responding to calls for service. The law also makes “unlawful use or threatened use of physical force” grounds for revoking certification and states, “qualified immunity is not a defense to the civil action.”

Created by the Supreme Court in 1967, qualified immunity is a commonly used affirmative defense shielding government officials from civil suits for actions taken in the course of their job. Because it is a federal policy, Colorado’s move only impacts police officers accused of violating state law.

“Colorado didn’t necessarily revoke qualified immunity because the state can’t,” explained Ben Levin, associate professor at Colorado Law. “What Colorado did in this in this bill, which I think is really creative, it creates a state cause of action in Colorado State courts, for people whose rights have been violated under the Colorado State Constitution.”

Citizens nationwide have demonstrated in support of police reform since the gruesome death of George Floyd on May 31 in Minneapolis, Minnesota by police officers.

The Supreme Court declined on Monday to hear another case of police officers shielded by qualified immunity after siccing a police dog on a suspect. Without intervention from the high court, removal of qualified immunity from federal law therefore will take an act from Congress. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi introduced a bill on June 4 that would do just that.

Critics of Colorado’s change say police need qualified immunity in order to protect the difficult split-second decisions required by the job. Supporters, however, say the law only creates an avenue for citizens to bring their grievances and does not guarantee the outcome.

“The importance of this is that it gives Colorado citizens a credible vehicle for enforcing their state constitutional rights against law enforcement officers,” said Alan Chen, law professor at the University of Denver. He testified in favor of a similar bill introduced earlier in the session.

Even if the law leads to an increase in lawsuits, Chen said, “that doesn’t mean that the police are going to lose every one of them just because they don’t have qualified immunity. There are other reasons why the plaintiffs might not necessarily prevail. I think that each case will have to be adjudicated on its merits.”

The Democrat-sponsored bill introduced in Colorado on June 3 will take effect on July 1, 2023.

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