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Delegate Seeks to Do Away With Qualified Immunity for Police Officers

Del. Jheanelle K. Wilkins (D-Montgomery). Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Several years ago, Makia Smith was dragged out of her car by her hair and placed under arrest. Her crime: video recording a police officer with her phone.

“On March 9, 2012, I was beaten,” she recalled at a press conference Monday. “I was abused by officers of the Baltimore City Police Department.”

Smith explained that she was driving home with her 2-year-old daughter when traffic on Harford Road came to a standstill. She looked to her right and saw police officers standing in a circle, surrounding another officer who had pinned a young man by his head to the ground with his knee.

Because traffic was stopped, Smith said she turned off her car, grabbed her phone and started recording. Before she knew it, an officer “who resembled the Incredible Hulk” rushed towards her, pried open her car door and grabbed her by her hair.

Smith described being slammed onto the hood by four police officers. Her phone was destroyed and she was thrown to the ground and arrested.

“As I lay down on the ground, I heard my daughter hysterically crying,” Smith said. “The main officer taunted me that social services would be here to pick up my daughter.”

Smith took the Baltimore Police Department to court. The Baltimore Sun reported that she received a $220,000 settlement in 2017.

“While we won, the system failed,” Smith said Monday. “It failed me and other victims … of abuse — victims of police brutality and police misconduct.”

“I did nothing wrong, but this has changed my life forever.”

Del. Jheanelle K. Wilkins (D-Montgomery) has introduced legislation that seeks to address these kinds of incidents. She is sponsoring the Police Qualified Immunity and Accountability Act, which would allow people like Smith to pursue civil lawsuits against officers for physical and emotional damages incurred during police encounters.

“The ability of officers to claim immunity is the antithesis of accountability and justice, and it perpetuates the challenges that we are facing when it comes to policing,” Wilkins said Monday.

Under Maryland’s current law, state employees are immune from civil liability for actions that infringe upon the rights of others if the transgression is within the scope of their job description and was objectively reasonable, or done without malice or gross negligence.

Municipal employees are also immune from civil liability under similar circumstances.

This is known as “qualified immunity.”

Wilkins’ bill would scrap the qualified immunity defense, making law enforcement agencies civilly liable for any physical or emotional harm they’ve inflicted on members of the public while on duty.

Under the legislation, judges may award up to $25,000 in restitution if officers are found responsible for their actions, and the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission would review the facts of the case to determine if they should be decertified.

The bill also adjusts the cap for settlements if the victim of brutality sues the officer’s employer — up to $905,000 for pain and suffering and $1,357,500 for wrongful death.

Under current law, the state reserves the right to sovereign immunity, meaning that it has limited liability for the actions of its employees. The Maryland Tort Claims Act caps the damages that can be awarded at $400,000. The Local Government Tort Claims Act caps damages at $400,000 for each individual claim but $800,000 per incident.

“Very importantly,” Wilkins added, her legislation would allow jurisdictions to pursue reimbursement for these civil suits if the officer is criminally convicted in relation to the incident or the county or their department is sued civilly for the officer’s criminal conduct.

Agencies could also reserve the right to revoke pensions if the officer is criminally convicted.

“These civil suits are sometimes the only means by which an individual or family can receive compensation for a violation of their rights and harm by police, and they deserve justice,” Wilkins said.

Baltimore City Council President Nick J. Mosby (D)  endorsed the legislation.

“I am not sure how one can comprehend the idea that someone can leverage the powers that are doctrine from the state to serve and protect citizens — to utilize that power, to utilize that discretion, to utilize that gun, that billy club or that badge to hurt, maim, kill and injure communities,” he said.

Speaking at Monday’s press conference, Mosby said he understands that “good” police officers deserve protection and support through pensions and benefits.

“But the idea that the folks who have been convicted of crimes like murder or burglary; the idea of the folks who are literally planting guns on individuals to convict them; the idea of individuals stealing drugs from drug dealers and then reselling them for their own profits; the ability for them to sit in jail and know that they’re coming home to a pension — that the same citizens that they have distrusted, the same citizens that they have violated, the same citizens that they have decided to destroy their lives are paying for their pensions for the rest of their lives. This is completely incomprehensible and unacceptable,” he asserted.

Angelica Bailey of the Maryland Municipal League testified in opposition to the bill in the House Judiciary Committee Monday, noting that there would be “significant increases” for judgment awards, and that insurance premiums to make up for the increased liability coverage would have a high price tag.

Representing the Maryland Chiefs and Sheriffs Association, Barbra Kruger said that the “bill just goes too far,” and that only judges, prosecutors and members of the General Assembly have absolute immunity.

“So what you will be doing here is stripping even these modest protections for officers — and only police officers — who commit good faith mistakes within the scope of their duties, put their livelihoods at risk, put their families at risk for personal liability,” she said.

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Delegate Seeks to Do Away With Qualified Immunity for Police Officers