General Assembly bill aimed at ending qualified immunity for police fails

Charlottesville police respond to shots fired on Prospect Avenue.
Charlottesville police respond to shots fired on Prospect Avenue.(WVIR)
Updated: Feb. 2, 2021 at 9:09 AM EST
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RICHMOND, Va. (WVIR) - A bill aimed at ending qualified immunity for police officers just failed in the General Assembly.

The legislative body in Richmond tackled police reform during a special session in 2020, but ending qualified immunity for law enforcement failed then and again in 2021.

State Senator Scott Surovell (D-37th) introduced the legislation with the goal of empowering victims of police brutality with a new tool.

“Basically, created a new civil cause of action based on some of the statutes that we passed during the special session,” Surovell said.

Right now, because of a legal doctrine called qualified immunity that protects government officials like police officers from civil lawsuits unless constitutional rights are violated, making lawsuits nearly impossible. This bill sought to lower that bar allowing people to sue in certain circumstances.

“We prohibited choke holds, shooting at a moving motor vehicle. We created a duty to intervene for using excessive force and we also created some standards for the use of deadly force,” Surovell said.

The bill failed in committee.

“Some of the members were concerned about some of the complexity associated with how officers might be indemnified by their localities. For example, the way I wrote the bill it said that a locality would have to pay the judgement no matter what,” Surovell said.

Members are also concerned about the potential ripple effects of such legislation.

“There was a feeling that we need to be really careful as we proceed and do it right and people wanted to be able to take some more testimony before we make some decisions on it,”Surovell said.

The Virginia Senate Judiciary Committee proposed a joint House and Senate subcommittee discussion before 2022.

“I can’t speak to the House of Delegates, all I can speak to is my own chamber. But there is some sincere interest in our body into trying to figure out some way to ensure people have a cause of action whenever excessive force or deadly force is used on people,” Surovell said.

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