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
    That One Guy (profile), 12 Apr 2021 @ 6:45pm

    Well that's one way to ensure more protests and riots...

    '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 by that he means 'are angry that police are acting like violent thugs and getting away with it, and are calling them what they are and for them to be held accountable for their own actions' then yeah, people have indeed been 'kicking law enforcement in the teeth', and rightly so.

    People are already pissed off that police, despite given enormous power and authority are held to zero standards and are all but untouchable in the legal system, allowed to run wild and do whatever the hell they want, this is just going to add fuel to the fire and widen an already significant split between police and the public and make people more likely to take matters in their own hands since they know that the system can't and won't protect them, so congrats Iowa senators on working overtime to make both the public and the police less safe in your attempt to kiss up to the thugs in blue.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Bobvious, 12 Apr 2021 @ 8:32pm

    How about

    You don't get (to keep) your badge unless you can pass a comprehensive and legally meaningful Constitution exam, which is then subject to 6-monthly renewals.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 12 Apr 2021 @ 8:47pm

    That would imply cops have a level of intelligence that they aren’t expected to have.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Pixelation, 12 Apr 2021 @ 9:23pm

    Because police officers just don't have enough protections already.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 12 Apr 2021 @ 9:39pm

    Re: How about

    Forget comprehensive it would be a massive improvement if they could pass a test regarding the constitution that someone in middle-school who's received even basic education on the matter would be able to pass.

    That the response to 'cops don't understand the basic rights of the public' is 'ignore those rights, treat cops like the world's dumbest people and protect them from all consequences for their actions' rather than 'fire them and hire people who have a basic understanding of the rights and laws they are tasked with protecting and enforcing' is all sorts of horrifying and displays a seriously warped set of priorities.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. icon
    Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 13 Apr 2021 @ 12:33am

    Re: How about

    "You don't get (to keep) your badge unless you can pass a comprehensive and legally meaningful Constitution exam, which is then subject to 6-monthly renewals."

    At this point that's not going to do anything. You'll still have "a few bad apples" who use peer pressure and "code blue" to turn even the best-intentioned rookies into bystanders who need to keep their traps shut for their own sake, and thus become accessories to the crimes committed by the corrupt thugs with badges. As a well-intentioned rookie there are penalties for giving the senior officer lip, even if it's to stop him from choking someone to death.

    George Floyd's death is almost textbook example of how that works. Chauvin, who murdered Floyd, had a long record of thuggery and bigotry. Another of the four, who helped restrain Floyd, similarly had a long list of complaints against him. The two remaining ones? Were idealistic rookies. But all thanks to Chauvin their lives are effectively over, simply because they were too afraid or too shocked to even raise their voice against a senior officer in public.

    The police, as a culture, is more concerned with face and the veneer of infallibility than chinese emperors. Until that changes radically and law enforcement starts to own their mistakes, no change will be possible.

    At this point I think there's no use in half-assed measures. The US police can't afford a single stain of rot remaining - it sits too deep, and almost every police chief will deny there's a problem even if his officers were caught organizing firing squads.
    Even if the solution means firing half the current force and banning them from ever working law enforcement again.

    And the current police unions above all, need to go. Move the cops all into an existing union for government employees in general, veterans union, whatever. And dissolve the current police unions whose only mission statement is to make sure no matter how big a thug or racist an officer of the law is, they won't be punished for it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Apr 2021 @ 3:57am

    Re: How about

    Better yet, get rid of the knuckle draggers that keep hiring other knuckle draggers that see citizens as the enemy.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    David, 13 Apr 2021 @ 4:44am

    Sedition anybody?

    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.

    State law cannot affect constitutional protections. While there are things like "warrant requirements" where the issue of a warrant may depend on state law, there is no real wiggling room for law enforcement officers to make such determinations.

    What we are talking about here is sedition: considering the overarching laws of the country as optional compared to the laws of the state.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    Upstream (profile), 13 Apr 2021 @ 4:59am

    Either / Or

    Either the Iowa Senate is just not "reading the room" or they have decided that it is OK for an authoritarian government to publicly make a hobby out of kicking the people in the teeth.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    Ed (profile), 13 Apr 2021 @ 8:41am

    No good cop?

    Now there's no good Republican, too.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 13 Apr 2021 @ 9:35am

    "Sen. Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs, 'we're trying to preserve the current law of the land right now"

    So it's okay when cops steal 400K from your home.
    So it's okay when cops force your daughter to strip on the side of the road.
    So it's okay when cops shove a baton into someones anus.
    So it's okay when cops shoot completely innocent people because they heard a pop.

    Perhaps maybe consider its the cops kicking citizens in the teeth over & over and you just gave them a pass to keep doing it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. 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....

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Apr 2021 @ 1:39pm

    '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 [metaphorically] making kicking law enforcement in their teeth a hobby every day.”

    Whereas for law enforcement, this is a real hobby in which they engage.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. icon
    Samuel Abram (profile), 13 Apr 2021 @ 3:56pm

    Re: Either / Or

    I'm guessing the latter.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. icon
    Samuel Abram (profile), 13 Apr 2021 @ 3:58pm

    Re: No good cop?

    No good currently elected republican you mean. I still hold Chris Cox (R - Orange County, CA) in high regard for his work on Section 230.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    icon
    restless94110 (profile), 14 Apr 2021 @ 6:10am

    Hope and Change

    We can only hope that qualified immunity is codified into law. Otherwise, you can kiss your ass goodbye if you seek any kind of help in the face of brutal assault and worse from those who would do such things.

    Why would any employee of the state assist you? Why would any employee of the state enforce any law? They would be sued into penury. No reason to do the job. You might do something or say something that a clever lawyer could then tie you up in a suit for 10 years and take all of your funds and leave you homeless.

    Why take the chance? No qualified immunity? Bye bye a police force. Be careful of what you wish for: you just might get it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. 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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. icon
    Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 14 Apr 2021 @ 7:12am

    Re: Hope and Change

    "We can only hope that qualified immunity is codified into law. Otherwise, you can kiss your ass goodbye if you seek any kind of help in the face of brutal assault and worse from those who would do such things. "

    Funny that the US is the only nation among the G20 to provide such a legal umbrella to its police and still remaining an example of utter failure when it comes to crime prevention.

    Every european alive who read this just shook their heads in disbelief because none of our police forces need this sort of legislation and we all managte just fine without it.

    I guess no one should be surprised that you among all people advocate the "more jackboots" recipe, Proud Boy that you are...
    ...but at some point you alt-right morons and neo-nazi blockheads are going to have to quit it with insisting that the US alone is such an example of suck and fail that it can't do what everyone does so easily.

    So much for the "patriotism" of the alt-right. They just keep painting the nation they live in as a special needs case among nations by arguing that shit no one else needs or wants is a requirement for the US to even exist.

    I guess that's what you've picked up from Stormfront these days. Incessant whining about how much of a no-hope loser the united states is compared to the rest of the world.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. icon
    BernardoVerda (profile), 14 Apr 2021 @ 6:54pm

    Re: Re: How about

    Just because it's worth repeating:

    At this point that's not going to do anything. You'll still have "a few bad apples" who use peer pressure and "code blue" to turn even the best-intentioned rookies into bystanders who need to keep their traps shut for their own sake, and thus become accessories to the crimes committed by the corrupt thugs with badges. As a well-intentioned rookie there are penalties for giving the senior officer lip, even if it's to stop him from choking someone to death.

    George Floyd's death is almost textbook example of how that works. Chauvin, who murdered Floyd, had a long record of thuggery and bigotry. Another of the four, who helped restrain Floyd, similarly had a long list of complaints against him. The two remaining ones? Were idealistic rookies. But all thanks to Chauvin their lives are effectively over, simply because they were too afraid or too shocked to even raise their voice against a senior officer in public.

    That's a large part of why this problem is so hard to fix -- the same people (superior officers, training officers, etc) who are theoretically in charge of fixing the problem, are generally committed to perpetuating the problem instead.

    And unfortunately, it doesn't take a very high percentage of influentially placed "blue warriors" to keep things that way.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Apr 2021 @ 6:01pm

    Re: Hope and Change

    Why would any employee of the state assist you? Why would any employee of the state enforce any law?

    Fun fact: they're already not required to. And qualified immunity wouldn't change this. Maybe next time don't be so trigger happy if you don't want to lose your privileges, wise guy.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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