Key aspects of recent tragic events feature prominently in reform efforts. Breonna Taylor was killed in her own home by officers executing a no-knock warrant, and George Floyd died with an officer’s knee on his neck while nearby officers looked on. Bills on track to pass both chambers in Richmond would ban no-knock warrants (which allow police to enter a home without announcing themselves) and neck restraints. They would also require police to intervene when another officer uses excessive force.
These are appropriate, if narrow, responses. Fortunately, lawmakers are also making progress on larger criminal justice reforms. We applaud efforts from both chambers to eliminate searches on the basis of the odor of marijuana alone and to prevent police from using minor traffic violations as a pretext for stops — a practice that often targets motorists of color. We encourage the House of Delegates to embrace a measure, likely to pass the Senate, that would reduce jail time for some incarcerated Virginians who are elderly, permanently disabled or terminally ill.
Overall, this is a good start for a special session, particularly one held under pandemic conditions that have posed myriad technical challenges. The General Assembly has also produced sensible voting reform measures to make the November election safer and smoother. But lawmakers still have work to do.
One contentious topic ahead is qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that acts as a liability shield when officers violate people’s civil rights. Advocates have pushed state lawmakers to eliminate the protection and thus open up state courts to police misconduct lawsuits. Some warn about the unintended consequences of a hasty end to qualified immunity: frivolous lawsuits, damage to local government finances and a potential decline in new police recruits. These concerns justify caution, but not inaction.
The Virginia House voted to strip police of qualified immunity last week. The Senate killed the House bill, concerned that the language was overly broad. Senators were correct to note that there are other ways to hold police officers accountable in court: by codifying use-of-force standards (which the chamber’s omnibus bill does) or by specifically creating a right to sue in state court for use-of-force violations.
Come the regular session in January, lawmakers should prioritize crafting effective language that gives civilians the recourse they deserve when their rights are violated by law enforcement. Perhaps they can draw inspiration from Colorado, where lawmakers rolled back qualified immunity but included measures to limit the personal financial liability of officers found guilty of serious misconduct so as not to deter would-be police from joining. A blanket repeal of qualified immunity need not be a heuristic for meaningful reform. Fortunately, in Virginia, the General Assembly is well on its way.