Commission recommends three changes to Massachusetts’ civil rights laws
A special commission formed to study qualified immunity in police investigations has recommended changes to the Massachusetts’ civil rights laws.
State Rep. Michael Day, D-Stoneham, and State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Middlesex, Worcester, who serve as co-chairs of the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary and the Special Commission to Study Qualified Immunity, are making three recommended changes to the state’s legal system.
The proposed changes call for making the system more accessible to civil rights claims violations, urging the development of case law on qualified immunity, and working to inform future consideration of the qualified immunity doctrine to impact police reform in the state.
“This report, and the work of the Commissioners summarized in it, dispels myths about what qualified immunity is and what it is not, and I encourage everyone to read it closely,” Day said in the release. “The three recommendations we made will, if adopted by the Legislature, give full effect to the police reform law, provide more clarity to our law enforcement professionals and foster increased public confidence in our criminal justice system.”
The commission, upon presenting its report, urges the Legislature to pass laws that would amend the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act to remove wording for “threats, intimidation, and coercion” with respect to law enforcement officers defined in the Police Reform Law.
The second recommendation is to pass legislation that would require judges to determine in writing whether a suspect’s conduct in a case violates their civil rights, even if the court has determined qualified immunity was acceptable in the case.
The third recommendation would be for the evaluation and implementation and administration of the Police Reform Law over the next two years while assessing its effectiveness to bring transparency, accountability, and trust in law enforcement, before recommending any further changes to the qualified immunity doctrine.
“Qualified Immunity remains a key legal doctrine that creates a barrier for everyday Massachusetts residents, disproportionately people of color, to get their day in court to seek justice from mistreatment by law enforcement,” Eldrige said in the release. “The recommendations the commission made will hopefully increase access to justice for civilians and improve the trust between law enforcement and vulnerable populations, while acknowledging that the qualified immunity reforms in the 2020 police reform law are still being implemented. “
Eldridge went on to say he would “work towards amending the policy in a way that ensures equity for all.”
The state’s Police Reform Law was designed to establish a statewide certification and de-certification system monitored by the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission. The law created the Special Commission on Qualified Immunity, and Section 37 altered the law for certain provision of the state’s Civil Rights Act by abolishing the application of qualified immunity claims against law enforcement based on the conduct that resulted in decertification by the commission.
According to the release, qualified immunity “is a court-created legal doctrine that grants some government officials immunity from personal liability in certain civil lawsuits.
Legislators, law enforcement officials, civil rights advocates and labor representatives comprised the Special Commission on Qualified Immunity, which first met in April 2021. The commission met nine times between April and December 2021.
Meetings were focused on the history and impacts of qualified immunity around the country, in addition to Massachusetts. The commission held a series of hearings featuring legal experts, the general public, and experts in the field to develop recommendations being made to the Legislature, which included taking no action to eliminating qualified immunity.
“The Commission heard clearly that claimants do not file civil rights cases in Massachusetts because the state law has a heightened standard when compared to the federal law, and we recognized that this could hamper the legal evolution of the qualified immunity doctrine,” Day said in the release. “By also requiring our courts to define what conduct violates an individual’s civil rights, whether qualified immunity applies or not, we will allow case law to develop in Massachusetts that will inform policy makers in the future about the successes and failures of police reform.”
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