By Andrew Engelson
Several criminal justice reform measures moved past last Friday’s deadline for bills to pass out of their committees of origin, including a bill sponsored by Rep. My-Linh Thai (D–41, Bellevue) that would give victims of unlawful police actions the right to sue for damages.
In Washington, and nearly every other state, “qualified immunity” is a doctrine established by the US Supreme Court that protects law enforcement officers from most civil misconduct lawsuits unless a person can prove that a previous case with very similar circumstances resulted in an officer or agency being held accountable. (Qualified immunity does not apply to use of excessive force.) In the past two legislative sessions, Rep. Thai introduced similar bills that would eliminate qualified immunity, but both failed to pass.
This time around, Thai’s bill no longer includes provisions giving the state attorney general’s office power to investigate and bring cases against police officers or law enforcement agencies for violating a person’s constitutional rights. As a result, it might have a better chance passing the House. (A separate bill, also sponsored by Thai, would give the attorney general the authority to investigate and sue law enforcement and corrections agencies.)
Thai’s bill could face a tougher road in the Senate, where police unions, local law enforcement agencies and the Association of Washington Cities have wielded considerable clout opposing similar bills in the past. Thirty-five states have tried and failed to eliminate qualified immunity since the protests over the murder of George Floyd in 2020, and only Colorado succeeded passing a law in 2020 that allows victims of misconduct to sue law enforcement agencies.
“Without accountability, there cannot be true justice,” Thai said in a press release. “This bill provides avenues to justice for victims of police misconduct. By holding municipalities accountable when their employees violate a resident’s state constitutional rights, I hope we can encourage them to properly train, support, and discipline their police forces.”
Candice Bock, a spokesperson for the Association of Washington cities, said the organization still opposed to Rep. Thai’s bill. “Our concern is that it’s not going to really lead to greater accountability – which I know is what the proponents hoped for,” Bock said. “It’s going to result in an increase in claims and litigation costs, and cities settling those claims because the litigation costs are too expensive.”
Two other bills to reform the state’s juvenile justice system made it out of their committees last week. One bill, sponsored by Sen. Yasmin Trudeau (D-27, Tacoma), would raise the minimum age for a child to be prosecuted in juvenile court from 8 years old to 13. The other, sponsored by Rep. David Hackney (D-11, Tukwila), would reform the state’s criminal sentencing system so that juvenile convictions no longer lead to longer sentences for crimes people commit as adults.
Bills that failed to make the deadline included one that would have prevented evidence gathered during police misconduct from being admissible in court, another that would have limited the use of solitary confinement, and one that would have allowed judges to consider releasing people who are serving long sentences for crimes they committed before the age of 25.