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
    Upstream (profile), 14 Apr 2021 @ 6:47am

    Re: Hope and Change

    QI was supposed to be for actions that a reasonable cop would, in good faith, believe to be lawful.

    Three very important qualifiers there.

    It has since been bastardized to cover damn near anything and everything any cop ever does, no matter how heinous.

    Big difference.


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