Maine lawmakers will suggest a committee to study reforms to qualified immunity for law enforcement officers instead of making changes this session.

The legal doctrine has been used to shield police officers from lawsuits. Qualified immunity has no bearing on whether a prosecutor charges a police officer with a crime, but it does affect whether that officer can be sued for civil rights violations. The U.S. Supreme Court created the concept more than 50 years ago to protect government employees from frivolous litigation, but it has expanded in case law over decades. It has come under new scrutiny, especially since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year, as activists push for greater accountability when police officers use excessive force.

The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee considered two bills this year that would have addressed the doctrine in state courts. The members heard hours of conflicting testimony on them in April and voted on them during a work session Thursday. Supporters argued that police officers should be held accountable for civil rights violations and that the qualified immunity doctrine has evolved to create an insurmountable barrier for those claims. Opponents said officers should not have to worry about being sued when they make split-second decisions on the job, and other tools exist to hold bad actors accountable for violations of policy or law.

One bill, L.D. 214, would eliminate qualified immunity entirely for police officers, sheriffs and other law enforcement officers in Maine. Rep. Jeff Evangelos, an independent from Friendship and the sponsor, was the only member to support that bill during the work session.

The other, L.D. 1416, would have denied qualified immunity to officers who have received training and work for departments that have use-of-force policies yet still violate constitutional rights. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth, asked the committee to instead recommend a study committee on the topic. The members didn’t create a list of members but suggested that the group should include law enforcement representatives, civil liberties advocates and the families of people who have experienced deadly force by police.

“I can work with stakeholders in order to explore how we can improve the doctrine of qualified immunity so we can avoid the excessive use of force concerns that we are all so worried about,” Carney said.

Eight members supported that idea, and three were against it. The bill would still need approval from the full Legislature and the governor.

It is not clear how many civil rights lawsuits have been filed against police officers in Maine courts, or the number of times those officers have invoked qualified immunity and been successful.

As Maine legislators debate qualified immunity in Augusta, the legal doctrine is at the center of a partisan divide in the U.S. Congress. Whether police officers nationwide should face more civil liability is one of the last major obstacles preventing passage of broad policing reform legislation.

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