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.

Two caveats:

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.

Phill Casaus is editor of The New Mexican.

(8) comments

Francisco Carbajal

Phil Casaus negative commentary against our law enforcement officer's deserves a harsh response. Casaus states "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." What is Casaus trying to imply in his bad choices of words and commentary relating to how the criminal investigation process operates for this type of scenarios? It appears to me, he is implying that our NMSP Criminal Investigator's who are in the midst of a firestorm are tainted with favoritism, bias, and only targeting violent criminal offender's who are trying to kill police officer's at-will, deserve a break in the judicial system, and without any legal sanctions and punitive measures? Clearly, Casaus is clueless on how the judicial and criminal justice system operates relating to officer-related shootings that results in the death of a human being. This type of subject matter expertise is what makes the New Mexico State Police at a high-caliber of professional's in our criminal justice system. Lastly, who does Casus think he is to slander, libel, and defame a good law enforcement officer "named in the incident is Leonardo Guzman" as if personally and professionally knew him in his community? Again, if anything "at best, ahem, incomplete" in facts about officer-related shootings in NM, it is Casaus that meets a bad example of character, a negative attribute in his commentary and journalism ethics.

Jay Roybal

As for the Roybal incident, this article just presents hyperbole with no real facts. Roybal was trying to injure the officer and was a threat to the public. He tried to steal a police car with all of the equipment inside. He was given ample opportunity to surrender. He chose to threaten the lives of others.

Jay Roybal

People have no foresight on what will happen when an officer can be charged personally by criminals for their actions to protect the public. There will be a mass freezing effect of police enforcement and you can say sayonara to law and order. People like Chris Mechels really do exist and have the power to vote. Unreal.

Alan Lucero

:) :) "People will have nor foresight" .... and then you offer your "foresight". Good joke.

Alan Lucero

We don't need foresight. We already have hindsight. We *know* from the hundreds of municipalities who have implemented Qualified Immunity that abuse incidents increase in those municipalities. Data. Not oft-repeated slogans.

Barry Rabkin

I definitely don’t want police officers to be personally liable for their actions. I don’t want any law to get in the way of a police officer protecting themselves or others when they are in a situation where some person is pointing a gun at that or firing a gun at them. I do want the police officer to react within nanoseconds to protect their own life even if that means the person aiming (or firing) a weapon at them or at civilians is killed.

Chris Mechels

Phill seems unaware that many Civil Rights lawsuits have been filed against NM cops, but in Federal Court not State Court, and resulted in large verdicts, much larger than $2 million. Most of the Civil Rights suits were settled, as in the case of Jeanette Anaya, which was $3 million. But, the SCOTUS set a new precedent a couple years ago, which makes it harder for these suits to prevail in Federal Court.

Thus, the Legislation to allow Civil Rights lawsuits in our State Courts, which is a good thing. But, the officers aren't liable as individuals, so the deterrence is weak. And, the affected municipalities lay off the risk by buying insurance. None of this seems likely to deter our cops, who weren't deterred by the large Federal lawsuits.

Needed, allowing the officers to be sued as individuals, personally liable. THAT would be a big deterrence, so of course we won't allow it. The more things "change" the more they remain the same. The shootings will continue.

Phill should do his homework before opining on this matter.

Francisco Carbajal

Chris Mechels, regardless on what you say or do relating to the use of force policies for each law enforcement agency that is located in the State of New Mexico, the fact remains that the SCOTUS will not interfere in the state powers or it's constitution's, period! The new so-called "HB-4 Civil Rights Act" legislation that was signed and codified into law by Governor Grisham-Lujan is definitely "anti-police" in nature. This piece of legislation will only benefit the Egolf's and the defense attorney's in NM. If any one "should be doing their homework before opining on this matter" is Chris Mechels.

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