Iowa Senate Approves Bill That Would Add Qualified Immunity To The State Law Books

from the less-responsibility,-more-power dept

In 2018, the Iowa Supreme Court decided to align the state with one of the worst aspects of federal jurisprudence. Deciding it was too much to demand law enforcement officers perform their duties without violating rights, the state's top court decided to adopt a form of qualified immunity so plaintiffs could be just as screwed in state courts as in federal courts.

The case prompting this decision dealt with an arrest of someone who drove an ATV through a ditch. This violated state law but did not violate city laws. So, the court decided this bizarre case involving a conflict of state and local laws should be the standard bearer for civil rights lawsuits going forward.

A long dissent decried this decision, saying that lowering Iowa's standard to the federal standard was the wrong way to go. It would only make cops worse by providing them with a built-in excuse for every time they crossed constitutional lines.

We should not voluntarily drape our constitutional law with the heavy chains of indefensible doctrine. We should aim to eliminate fictions in our law and be honest and forthright on the important question of what happens when officers of the law commit constitutional wrongs that inflict serious reputational, emotional, and financial harms on our citizens.

That's been the standard in the state since this decision. For some reason -- with protests against police violence still ongoing around the nation -- the state legislature feels now is the time to codify the doctrine first conjured up by the US Supreme Court into Iowa law.

The Iowa Senate passed legislation Monday intended to strengthen 'qualified immunity” for law enforcement officers who take forceful action in situations where state law is 'not sufficiently clear” to understand their conduct might violate someone's constitutional protections.

Majority Republicans said the statutory language is needed to clarify court rulings and provide 'balance” in cases where the law was not 'clearly established” at the time of an incident giving rise to a claim against an officer.

The bill does more than give Iowa officers a new defense tactic. It codifies the US Supreme Court's watered-down legal standards that have made it extremely difficult for plaintiffs suing over rights violations to succeed.

Under provisions of the legislation, a law enforcement officer would not be found liable in any action for damages in an individual capacity if the state law was not sufficiently clear so that the officer would have understood the conduct was a violation of the Constitution or any other law, or the law was not clearly established at the time of the incident giving rise to the claim against the officer.

The burden would be on the plaintiff to show that the law enforcement officer violated a clearly established constitutional or statutory right and the officer's employing agency would not be liable if the officer was found not to be liable under the new provision.

There is no reason to do this since state precedent says this already exists. What's happening here appears to be political point scoring that caters to the base these legislators have chosen to serve.

'We're not here today to try to create something new,” said Sen. Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs, 'we're trying to preserve the current law of the land right now because there are a slew of political actors out there that have decided in making kicking law enforcement in their teeth a hobby every day.”

If you're not creating anything new, why are you bothering? Is this the counter-hobby -- one that placates cops and gives cop fans a reason to cheer, even as it makes holding officers accountable much more difficult? The legislation is, at best, redundant. At worst, it's a public statement to law enforcement that their supposed oversight is more interested in keeping officers happy than making sure they respect the rights of the people they serve.

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Filed Under: iowa, police, qualified immunity


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  1. icon
    sumgai (profile), 13 Apr 2021 @ 9:37am

    State law cannot affect constitutional protections.

    In some cases, that's true, but what this is really doing is setting up a "super case" for testing, and hopefully finalizing, State's Rights.

    In the main, I agree that states should be in charge of their citizenry, that in fact the country was formed for only two things - to allow a cohesive effort in protecting the several states from outside interference (colloquially known as 'war'), and to keep any one state from overpowering another, less well provisioned state. Those two ideas are THE central tenet behind the preample to the Constitution that goes "We the People, in order to form a more perfect Union.... We've certainly come a long way down the pike from those ideas, haven't we.

    But this business about 'basic civil rights', that's gotten just about everybody's dander all up in arms, that's for sure. So here's the problem: Courts have long held that cops DON"T need to know the law in order to make citizens obey it. And now Iowa wants to codify that idea. My question at that point would be: "If they aren't expected to know even a greater portion of the laws on the books, how do you even come close to expecting them to know anything about civil rights???" If anything, civil rights are constantly being refined in the courts, and the Statutes are only "good starting points". As seen in the recent decade, the very LAST thing the comes to a cop's mind when "contacting a citizen" is wondering if he or she is about to violate that citizen's rights. Rightly or wrongly, that's something that always comes up during CYA time, which is way too late for George Floyd, MIchael Brown, ect.

    The "proper" solution is to put the shoe on the other foot: "Any officer of the law who disrespects a citizen's civil rights is automatically deemed to be unfit for service, and shall be subject to discipline by a court of competent jurisdiction, with or without the testimony of any aggrieved citizen."

    All of that set aside for the moment, we get these kinds of laws because Iowan farmers* don't want change. They are extremely pissed off at "big city liberals" because a 76 square mile area of the state has more voters than the remaining 55,800 square miles, and they're doing their best to see to it that change doesn't come any faster than absolutely necessary. IOW, what was good enough for their great-grandfathers should be good enough for their great-grandchildren. I personally don't think that's gonna play to well in Peoria, but then again, I won't be here to see for myself what happens, I'm just tossing out a conjecture or two....


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