TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and top legislative leaders have thrown their support behind a bill to crack down on rioting and create harsher penalties for those who attack law enforcement officers, but Florida Democrats plan to file a competing bill that would do away with some protections for law enforcement officers.
The bill would open up individual officers to lawsuits if they violate citizens' civil rights in the course of their duties.
Individual officers are shielded from civil lawsuits unless it can be proven they knowingly violated a statutory or constitutional right under what is known as qualified immunity.
“We have to deal with overpolicing,” said state Sen. Shevrin Jones.
Jones believes qualified immunity protects officers who do wrong on the job.
“No one should be able to be shield from any liability when they’ve caused harm to individuals or an individual’s family,” said Jones.
Qualified immunity is a federal doctrine.
Jones said he’s looking at a law passed this year in Colorado, which allows civil suits against officers to be brought in state court.
However, Florida Sheriff’s Association Legislative Chair Bob Gualtieri said that as it stands now, law enforcement agencies can still be held liable for civil damages.
“If you don’t act maliciously, if you just acted negligently and you just made a mistake, then you can’t be sued, so you’re not reaching into your own pocket,” said Gualtieri. “But if you cross the line and you do act maliciously, you do act intentionally, you do under federal law violate clearly established law, then you own it and you should.”
He argued doing away with qualified immunity would leave officers without any protection from frivolous lawsuits.
“Why should a cop making $45,000 a year have to worry every single time you’re making a split-second decision that you might have to do something that affects your family and you personally and that you’re going to have to pay personal damages?” said Gualtieri.
The senator said he has not yet drafted the bill and noted he is speaking with law enforcement groups to find some common ground in hopes of putting a product forward that could increase police accountability.
On the federal level, there have also been bills filed to do away with or reform qualified immunity.
In the House, 65 Democrats and one Republican are co-sponsoring a bill that would end qualified immunity.
In the Senate, Sen. Kamala Harris sponsored a resolution calling for the elimination of qualified immunity in June.