Village of New Paltz trustees, with the support of several community members living in adjacent areas of New Paltz and Gardiner, are themselves supporting efforts to limit the impacts of the quality immunity doctrine anywhere in New York. If passed, the law would block attempts to use the doctrine by “a person or public entity operating under the color of law,” which appears to include any public official, but the justification attached to the senate version make it clear that the target is law enforcement officers who violate constitutional rights.
Qualified immunity was invented in a 1967 Supreme Court decision, Pierson v Ray, in which government officials were given immunity to lawsuits except in cases when clearly established rights, of which a reasonable person would have known, are violated by that official. Further decisions have refined the meaning of “clearly established” until it’s now understood that there needs to be a court decision narrowly carving out that specific right for it to count. The “reasonable person” is a legal fiction used by judges to imagine how closely those court decisions are read. Critics assert that while this immunity is qualified rather than absolute, it has a chilling effect which discourages victims of government officials from filing suit at all. The intersection of qualified immunity and gun-carrying law enforcement officers has resulted in a heightened interest in altering the doctrine through legislation or litigation.
Bills have been considered at both the federal and state level to scale back or eliminate qualified immunity. This would likely leave state and local governments defending personnel against suits that would no longer be blocked by the doctrine, including police brutality suits. The New York bill has public opposition coming from some elected officials, including Governor Kathy Hochul and Senator James Skoufis, who chairs the committee where the bill now sits. The stated concern is that police officers should not be punished for split-second decisions.
Those who spoke at the village meeting to voice support for ending qualified immunity invoked the names of Monica Goods and Paul Echols. Goods was 11 years old when Trooper Christopher Baldner struck the family car twice, in the course of pursuing after Goods’ father fled a traffic stop during which Baldner is alleged to have deployed pepper spray into the Goods vehicle. Echols claims to have been punched in the face by town police officer Robert Knoth, which in the back of a New Paltz police car. Neither incident was fully captured by the cameras that were in use at the time. Echols has since settled a federal lawsuit against Knoth for an undisclosed sum. Baldner faces manslaughter and reckless endangerment charges, but the one count of second-degree murder was thrown out at the beginning of the month. That dismissal is now being appealed by the attorney general. The village resolution originally referenced Monica Goods, but trustees opted to remove that language in light of the pending appeal in that case.
In supporting this measure, Michele Zipp quoted Audre Lord by saying, “The master’s tools will never be used to dismantle the master’s house.” The resolution, passed unanimously, will be circulated to a number of public officials – including the town’s police commissioners and police chief.