LEGISLATIVE COMMISSION OPENS HEARINGS ON QUALIFIED IMMUNITY

MAPLE Testifies In Support Of Qualified Immunity

              A fifteen member legislative commission called to examine the state’s qualified immunity law, under the Police Reform Bill of 2020, opened its hearings this week.   Co-chaired by Senators Jamie Eldridge and Representative Michael Day, the 15 member commission took public testimony yesterday utilizing a remote Microsoft Team link.  A three-member panel representing the Massachusetts Association For Professional Law Enforcement (MAPLE) was the first to testify.  The panel included Arthur McLaughlin, Pat Faiella and President Dennis Galvin.

           Galvin led off the presentation informing the panel members that “ there was no evidence that people in Massachusetts were being denied redress for injuries due to constitutional violations committed by police officers ”.  He identified MGL Chapter 258 Section 9 and 9A as the state’s qualified immunity law and urged its retention describing it as “sound policy’ . Galvin specifically stated that officers should be protected from liability whenever they have legitimate probable cause for their actions.  He closed his remarks by cautioning the panel that recruitment and retention of officers both nationally and in Massachusetts has become a major concern with significant public safety ramifications for the future.  He said that stripping sensible legal protection away from officers can only exacerbate the situation.

            Pat Faiella testified that there was much confusion surrounding the concept of Qualified Immunity.   He stated that many people believe that it alone is responsible for blocking redress for claims of injuries and for fostering a climate tolerant of police abuse.  He described this as a “misconception” noting that qualified immunity is responsible for the dismissal of a very small number of cases.  Faiella urged the commission to focus more on the role of municipalities and their failures to select proper candidates and offer proper training and supervision.  Both Faiella and Galvin urged the commission to give the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission (POST) adequate time to perform its mission as this agency should take the lead in dealing with police misconduct.

           Member Arthur McLaughlin completed the panel’s testimony offering his own personal experience of being sued following a horrendous accident in which he was seriously injured.  He had stopped a vehicle for a violation and during the stop was rear ended by a tractor trailer unit, whose operator had fallen asleep.  The impact of the tractor trailler drove his cruiser into the car ahead of him killing the operator.  McLaughlin testified that he underwent a lengthy recovery period during which he was personally sued by the family of the person operating the car that he had stopped. He said that he was just doing his duty and found himself facing the strains of a legal defense while undergoing a very difficult recovery.

           A parade of witnesses followed the MAPLE panel.  They featured Rashan Hall from the ACLU who launched into a litany of police abuses, singling out the Springfield Police.  Hall testified that 200 people have been shot to death by police in Massachusetts over the course of the past 20 years.  He added that police are given the power of life and death over citizens and they must be held accountable for their actions. Juan Cofield representing the NAACP of New England testified and acknowledged that Massachusetts may have less issues than other parts of the nation with regard to police abuse, but urged that this should not deter the commission from holding police accountable to the same degree as elsewhere in the nation.  Lauren Bonds representing “ the Police Accountability Project” testified remotely from Louisiana.  She told the commission that qualified immunity was an unsurmountable barrier to the redress of injuries caused by police abuse.  Laura Carrie representing the American Innocence Project informed the commission that there must be measures to redress wrongful convictions, so that the victims can begin reconstructing their lives.

           The issue of qualified immunity has its origins in federal law 42USC1983, known as the “Ku Kux Klan law”.  Passed in 1871 during reconstruction, the law imposed a “strict liability” standard on state officials, who violate a person’s constitutional liberties.  The strict liability aspect of the law was modified somewhat in the 1967 Supreme Court ruling in Pierson vs Ray which held that officers were entitled to a “good faith defense”, that derived from common law.  There has been much controversy and debate over the intent of the original law.   Massachusetts established its own standard under MGL Chapter 258 Section 9 which extends protection to government officials so long as they are operating “within the scope of their duties”.  The law expressly withdraws this protection if an official commits a “gross, willful or malicious violation” of someone’s civil rights.

           The Legislative Commission is comprised of both legislators and citizens.  Senators Eldridge, Cyr and Crème, along with Representatives Peake, Strauss, Xiarhous and Ryan make up the legislative contingent.  The rest of the commission includes two representatives from a police and fire union, the ACLU, The Massachusetts Bar Association, the Mass Municipal Association and the NAACP.  The commission took one vote during this session which was to extend the time for its report to the legislature from September 30 until December 31, 2021.  Another round of testimony is expected to occur in two to three weeks. 

JURY RENDERS DISAPPOINTING VERDICT IN OFFICER GANNON MURDER TRIAL

Latanowitch Found Guilty Of Second Degree Murder 

 Despite the fact that Thomas Latanowitch was armed and fully prepared to resist police officers and then killed Yarmouth Police Officer Sean Gannon, a Barnstable superior court jury found him guilty of second degree murder ( Boston 25 News).  Prosecutors had hoped for a first degree murder conviction, which would have ensured Latanowitch’s incarceration for life.  Under a second degree murder conviction, he will be eligible for parole in 25 years.  Sources indicate that the jury had difficulty finding that Latanowitch committed the murder with “malice aforethought”.  This verdict was very disappointing.  The Gannon family was denied full justice.This is another sad indication that public support upon which officers have always relied is becoming increasingly more tentative.  This will have serious ramifications for society. 

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