Late Wednesday evening, the U.S. House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 by a vote of 220-212. The act bans neck restraints and chokeholds and no-knock warrants in drug cases. It also eliminates qualified immunity for federal, state and county law enforcement officers. Qualified immunity has been in the national spotlight after multiple high-profile law enforcement interactions where death or injury to a suspect has occurred. The act was originally scheduled for a Thursday floor debate and vote, but was moved up to Wednesday due to what intelligence officials deemed credible security threats at the Capitol building. In May 2020, Floyd died after being taken into police custody in Minneapolis.
Courts have interpreted qualified immunity to prevent individuals from suing for damages when law enforcement officers have been accused of violating their constitutional rights. The act would modify the law by removing language protecting an officer who was acting in “good faith,” if they believed their conduct was lawful at the time or if the officer did not reasonably know their actions were unlawful at the time. Qualified immunity does not protect a law enforcement officer who knowingly violates the law.
Even though individual law enforcement officers are responsible for monetary damages in a lawsuit, the government entity that employs the officer is typically held financially responsible as well. Law enforcement departments and county governments are concerned that the cost of liability insurance for law enforcement officers and payouts from liability claims could increase considerably if the George Floyd Act becomes law as currently written. It is now up to the Senate to consider the act, where an even 50-50 split makes for an uncertain outcome. Sen.Tim Scott (R-South Carolina) has authored his own policing reform act, and has signaled his willingness to work with Democrats on qualified immunity.
The Texas Legislature will likely debate a state version of the George Floyd Act, House Bill 88, by Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston). This is a priority bill for the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas. No hearing date has been set for this bill at time of publication.
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