Bennington County senators run as a team

State Sen. Dick Sears

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It is important to ensure the doors of our justice system remain open to those who’ve been harmed, including those harmed by wrongful government action. The civil court system is how we solve disputes, how we keep society peaceful and ordered. It is how Vermonters access justice.

The George Floyd tragedy inspired me, and many of my colleagues in the Legislature, to dig deep into the intersection of civil rights and civil policing. We must find every opportunity to update our laws and do better.

Like most people, I support police officers. They are essential to public safety. I also believe in civil rights, and the right to redress if you have been harmed by the government.

Since that tragedy, working together we have improved fair and impartial policing policies. We’ve enacted modern use of force guidelines, improved police officer training, and supported universal body cameras.

Now in focus is a major gap in the law which is ensuring access to justice for victims harmed by unreasonable police misconduct. Oddly, the way it works now — with little rhyme or reason — some victims gain access to justice while others have the door slammed in their face, even when the police misconduct caused serious harm.

The doctrine of qualified immunity, which sometimes shields police agencies and officers from accountability for wrongfully causing injury to citizens, was created by the courts.

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The elected lawmakers of the Vermont Legislature have never directly looked at the issue of qualified immunity, which doesn’t make sense. So, I’ve introduced a bill modeled on recent bipartisan laws passed in other states, such as Colorado.

The bill would create a way for victims harmed by unreasonable police misconduct to seek justice and guarantee that every police officer acting in good faith is 100 percent financially protected— or indemnified—by their employing police agency.

Before I introduced this legislation, I learned the call for change comes from all sides of the political aisle, not just the left. In fact, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who I don’t agree with often, has raised concerns about the absurdity of the applications of qualified immunity in misconduct cases. Calling the Court’s qualified immunity precedents “free-wheeling policy choice[s]”.

This conversation is not about tearing down police officers, but instead about ensuring that people harmed by extreme, negligent policing, or the rare but unacceptable bad faith policing, have access to compensation for their injuries. If a Vermonter who is harmed by an unreasonable violation of their civil rights loses work, sustains injuries causing medical bills, or has their reputation tarnished, the law should offer them more than, “Sorry, no justice for you. Good luck. You are on your own.”

Fixing this law in a balanced way will help restore trust in community policing and boost police officers’ confidence in their good faith policing.

I look forward to hearing all sides of this issue when we consider it in the Senate Judiciary Committee. And if there is a better way to balance accountability and fair access to justice for civil rights violations, I’m listening.

Dick Sears is state Senator representing Bennington County & Wilmington. He is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manchester Journal.


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