Home Immunity Senate passes amended, ‘flooded’ version of qualified immunity bill

Senate passes amended, ‘flooded’ version of qualified immunity bill

Senator Bobby Starr, D-Essex/Orleans, left, speaks with Senate Pro Tempore Speaker Becca Balint, D-Windham, at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Wednesday, March 23, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

What started as a bill that would have banned qualified immunity legal defense for Vermont police officers has been gutted. Now the bill authorizes nothing more than a study of the matter.

Although supporters have claimed a “unified front” of law enforcement and municipalities have pressured lawmakers to weaken the bill, Senate Pro Tempore Speaker Becca Balint, D-Windham, said this week that the bill lacked legislative support from the start.

When the Senate passed S.254 in March, it was already stripped of its original teeth. Instead of abolishing qualified immunity altogether, it authorized a study of the matter and codified Zullo v. Vermont of the state Supreme Court, which grants citizens a private right of action against state police “based on alleged flagrant violations of Section 11.”

Even then, when Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman and lead sponsor of the bill, Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, presented the bill to his colleagues, he called it a “watered down” version.

In the weeks following its release from the grip of the Senate, the House even removed the Zullo language, then sent it back to the Senate for approval. On Friday, the Senate approved the changes and added an amendment by voice vote.

While the Senate’s first version was watered down, Sears told colleagues on Friday, this latest iteration is “inundated.”

Qualified immunity is a widespread legal doctrine established in United States Supreme Court precedent that protects public officials from lawsuits for violating citizens’ civil rights in the course of their work.

As for the police, the agencies and the municipalities say that it is a necessary guard so that the police can police without fear of frivolous lawsuits. But critics argue it allows officers to act with impunity and denies victims of police brutality a path to justice in civilian court.

Last month, supporters of the bill described a “unified front” of opposition to the bill from law enforcement and municipalities. Balint, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, in a March 11 statement, described “a lot of pushback.”

But at an independent press conference on Wednesday, she said the bill lacked strong legislative support from the outset. He had only four co-sponsors, and even with his and Sears’ names among them, she said, “that doesn’t signal widespread support in your caucus or chamber.”

She said she signed her name on the bill because she “felt like it was incredibly important that we have this conversation after 50 years of not having this conversation about how people get justice. when they were ill-treated by the police”.

But even as the most powerful senator in the building, she said, “I don’t have a magic wand.

“It was clear that despite all the conversations I engaged in with committee members and caucus members, there was a strong desire for more information,” she said.

She continued, “What happened is what is still happening in this building. You do your best with the people you have around the table. You do your best with the information you have on the ground.

A legislative study will bring this information together, she said. Balint will not be in the Senate next year, as she is stepping down to run for Congress. But she said she hoped lawmakers would “find a way to move forward on this.”

The bill must return to the House for approval before heading to the office of Governor Phil Scott, who holds the power of veto. Scott has consistently opposed proposals to end qualified immunity this session.

On Friday, Scott spokesman Jason Maulucci said the governor had not reviewed the latest version of the bill.

“He doesn’t believe the study is necessary, but it’s certainly better than the original proposal from his perspective,” he said.

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