SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — On the same day a Minnesota jury found Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd, a push to end qualified immunity stalled in the Illinois House.
Democrats narrowly reached a deal on police reform during a “lame duck” session in January. The original provision would have ended qualified immunity, the legal shield that often protects police officers from liability in civil courts; however, that controversial proposal was removed in order to calm the nerves of some legislators who were uncomfortable with the idea.
“I was someone who, internally and publicly, was very adamant that qualified immunity should stay in the criminal justice pillars,” Rep. Curtis Tarver said Thursday. “I think that to not have it in there is somewhat of a disservice to the overall purpose of the pillar.”
“Individuals who either don’t come in contact with law enforcement in the same way that a lot of Black and Brown individuals do, or don’t know anyone who’s had those same type of interactions, I think it could be difficult for them,” Tarver said.
Instead, the final police reform bill redirected the debate over qualified immunity to a new task force, whose members have not yet been assigned. When Tarver renewed the push to end qualified immunity, a number of other House Democrats backpedaled from the idea until the task force study had been completed.
“There is a bill that we’re slowing down,” Rep. Justin Slaughter (D-Chicago) said on Wednesday after a contentious caucus meeting about Tarver’s push to revive the talks. “It’s a very difficult issue, not just here locally in Illinois, all across our country.”
Slaughter, who spearheaded the police reform measure in the House, suggested that Senator Dick Durbin could review the issue from his perch atop the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Qualified immunity is not written into state law. Rather, it’s a federal judicial doctrine that says government workers should have immunity or leeway to do their jobs with the qualification that they carry out their duties in good faith. It does not block police from criminal prosecution, but for as long as that shield has been up, civil suits have sometimes been tossed out, leaving the courts with precious few cases to build precedent.
The U.S. Supreme Court sidestepped a lawsuit that challenged the doctrine of qualified immunity in March.
“The purpose of the doctrine is to avoid police officers being held liable for things that are considered honest mistakes, or things that weren’t clearly established in the law before they occurred,” Rep. Patrick Windhorst (R-Metropolis) said.
Windhorst, a former Massac County State’s Attorney, said qualified immunity was “only successful in about 4% of cases when it’s raised as a defense. So I I don’t think that it’s been overused.”
“But I do believe it’s something that the federal courts just take a look at, and perhaps even Congress, because it’s a court made doctrine, the US Congress, US Senate can can take a look at enacting legislation that would address it.”
Windhorst acknowledged that many prosecutors may have hesitation bringing criminal charges against police officers, but said he felt that trend was changing after the jury found Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd.
“I did not get to see the entirety of the trial,” Windhorst said when asked how he felt about the verdict, “So it’s difficult for me to say exactly, but I do trust a jury sitting there hearing [it] all.”
“I think it was the right verdict,” Tarver said. “What I’m concerned about is that people will look at that and say, ‘Okay, everything is okay, there’s accountability. Here it is on the criminal side, this person is being held accountable, and therefore, we don’t have to look at qualified immunity.'”
“We have now proven that when somebody has a knee on someone’s neck for nine minutes, and it goes viral, and it’s on national TV, then in that instance, there’s justice,” Tarver said. “But it’s about the many situations where there is no camera, there are not a lot of onlookers that I’m more concerned about.”