Attorneys, judges, bureaucrats and bean counters throughout New Mexico all have a stake in what’s happened on the streets of Santa Fe in the past month.
The cluster of officer-involved shootings in the area — some fatal, most cloaked in typical, tight-lipped secrecy that almost always does no favors to the people whose lips are zipped — is likely to have ramifications beyond those directly involved.
The reason? New Mexico’s just-unwrapped Civil Rights Act.
The new law, which allows individuals to file lawsuits against governmental entities in state court if they believe their civil rights have been violated, took effect July 1. It has a variety of facets, most of them fascinating, but two key provisions are these: It eliminates “qualified immunity” as a legal defense for individual government employees, like police officers, and caps damages at $2 million for any governmental entity to pay.
We have no idea what the outcome will be in the investigations on the four officer-involved shootings that have taken place between June 23 and July 7. We do know most investigations — rather, determinations — fall overwhelmingly in the favor of the officers who’ve fired their weapons.
The new law is not retroactive to anything that happened before July 1, which technically means the controversial fatal shooting of suspect Nathan Roybal by Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office deputies on June 23 wouldn’t be affected by the provisions of the Civil Rights Act.
But the Roybal shooting, and perhaps others, regardless of date, are almost certain to have an effect in the offices of human resources specialists who work for governmental entities. With qualified immunity gone, and state courts perceived as an easier avenue than federal courts to pursue civil rights violations, it’s reasonable to think bureaucrats may be forced to take a closer look at who gets on a government payroll long before there’s ever an incident.
Which is to say, a prospective employee with a past — say, a police officer who’s been involved in a previous shooting — may not be the slam-dunk hire they once were.
In the Roybal case, one of the Santa Fe County deputies named in the incident is Leonardo Guzman, who had been involved in a fatal shooting in 2017 when he was an employee of the Santa Fe Police Department.
Guzman shot and killed a suspected car thief near Eldorado. He later was cleared by a panel of district attorneys.
Again, we don’t know enough to make a determination about whether June’s Roybal shooting was justified. Once an investigation is completed on this incident and the others, it’ll be forwarded to the District Attorney’s Office. In recent years, such cases have been moved to a group of DAs from other locales — as was the Guzman case in ’17 — who make a decision on whether officers should be prosecuted.
What we do know is this: The public whisperings of New Mexico State Police, which is investigating the incident, have been, at best, ahem, incomplete. All we have so far is video, first obtained by KRQE-TV. I think you can assume it will be scoured by attorneys.
But what fascinates me about the Roybal case and others that have followed isn’t merely about how they’ll be investigated and adjudicated. It’s how they’ll be interpreted, particularly against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Act.
Something else to consider: There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that points to the itinerant nature of law enforcement, where officers and deputies move from one agency to another, sometimes due to controversy. In a world where there aren’t enough cops, lateral transfers are common.
When the law was first proposed in the Legislature, particularly its early versions, I had significant concerns. Some still remain. A judgment against a small locale — and let’s face it, most of New Mexico’s local governments are tiny — could be devastating. More to the point, could, say, De Baca County handle a $2 million judgment against one of its employees? Could Santa Fe County?
My guess: Not really.
On the other hand, a law’s real value manifests itself not in a courtroom but in daily life. And that’s what’s so interesting about the Civil Rights Act as it pertains to government employees. When attorney Richard Rosenstock observes, as he did earlier this month in an interview with this newspaper, that “there’s a lot of New Mexico government officials who are not police officers,” he’s absolutely right. Cops aren’t the only people who will be scrutinized, just the first.
From now on, government will have to be choosier about who it hires.
Is that a good thing? Yes, it is.