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New Mexico opens door to new era of civil rights lawsuits

New Mexico opens door to new era of civil rights lawsuits

SANTA FE, N.M. — Efforts among a handful of states to hold police accountable for brutality and misconduct are expanding Thursday as New Mexico opens the door to civil rights lawsuits against government agencies in state court.The New Mexico Civil Rights Act removes immunity provisions that shield government agencies from financial liability related to misconduct, though individual officials won’t pay for damages.As the law takes effect, local police agencies are bracing for an onslaught of lawsuits that can carry liability awards of up to $2 million per event. At least one county sheriff’s department has been declined private insurance coverage — highlighting concerns about potential payouts.The legislation, drafted amid nationwide protests over police brutality and institutional racism, reaches beyond law enforcement practices and applies to potential misconduct at nearly every state and local government agency, including school districts.Attorneys also hope to harness the law to address cruel conditions in prisons or abuses in foster homes for children. They note that New Mexico’s Bill of Rights goes beyond federal guarantees to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex.“New Mexico has had a Bill of Rights in its Constitution. We’ve never had a effective way to enforce those rights, or protect those rights,” said Maureen Sanders, a civil rights attorney who provides voluntary legal advice to the American Civil Liberties Union. “This will … give you an appropriate way to bring claims when foster kids are injured by the Children, Youth and Families Department, or an individual’s 1st Amendment rights are violated by a county commissioner.”The legislation, signed by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in April, was backed by an unusual coalition of progressive civil rights advocates and politically conservative proponents of greater accountability in government. The conservative-backed nonprofit group Americans for Prosperity, supported by billionaire Charles Koch, was one prominent supporter.The U.S. Supreme Court recently declined to take up several challenges to the legal doctrine known as qualified immunity, which shields officials from lawsuits for money as a result of things they do in the course of their job.Several states are no longer waiting to hold police or law enforcement agencies financially responsible for wrongdoing.Colorado last year became the first state to place limits on the use of qualified immunity as a defense in law enforcement cases, and Connecticut has established an avenue for people to seek financial damages in wrongdoing by police.In New Mexico, Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe oversees a force of 125 sworn officers and worries that the new civil rights law will highlight mistakes and not solutions.He said his department already has two lieutenants assigned full-time to the review the use of force by officers, and that consultations with national experts are coming soon.“We anticipate we’re going to be sued more as policing agencies,” Hebbe said. “The goal of it was to hold departments accountable, I get that. It’s tough to plan, then. What does this all look like ( in the future)? I can’t tell you that I know that yet.”Republican state legislators unanimously opposed the immunity reforms in a display of solidarity with police and amid concerns that civil rights lawsuits might undermine local government finances — including law enforcement budgets — and be counterproductive.Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf championed the abolition of immunity after protests over police brutality and institutional racism erupted nationwide — and came under criticism as an attorney whose legal practice profits in part from civil rights litigation.He said the new state law goes beyond policing or political leanings and can be used to call out government infringement on the right to bear arms or freedom of religious worship.Human rights advocates foresee advances for vulnerable populations — including prison inmates who don’t easily garner sympathy.Steven Robert Allen, an advocate for improving prison conditions as director of the New Mexico Prison & Jail Project, said that the state’s constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment has been “nice on paper, but meaningless” until now.Allen expects complaints against lockups that faced insurmountable odds in federal court can now move forward.The financial implications for taxpayers is unclear, as private insurance providers and mutual insurance pools for local governments recalibrate costs.New Mexico’s risk-management division that provides a legal defense to state personnel and agencies estimates a 35% increase in the number of annual civil rights lawsuits. It says settlements and jury awards are likely to nearly double to $6.6 million annually.At the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office, an agency of 330 people headquartered in Albuquerque, lapel cameras were adopted less than a year ago — a mandatory provision of reforms in 2020 by state lawmakers.Sheriff’s Office Captain Nicholas Huffmyer said the state’s new Civil Rights Act won’t change his agency’s field protocols for the use of force that hinge on the imminent threat of harm, the presence of a weapon and resistance to arrest.“You cannot use financial liability as a fulcrum to adjust how you deal with use of force,” said Huffmeyer, who oversees internal affairs. “We have other constitutional requirements.”

Trump cowboy seeks 2nd act in politics after Capitol breach

Trump cowboy seeks 2nd act in politics after Capitol breach

TULAROSA, N.M. — He rodeoed in a Buffalo Bill-style Wild West show, carried his message on horseback from the Holy Land to Times Square and was invited to the White House to meet the president.But luck may have run out for this cowboy pastor who rode to national political fame by embracing President Donald Trump with a series of horseback caravans and came crashing down with a defiant stand Jan. 6 against President Joe Biden’s election.Today, Couy Griffin is divorced, disparaged by family and confronts a political recall drive, a state corruption investigation and federal charges.And yet he remains determined. He sees himself as governor one day.The first-term county commissioner forged a group of rodeo acquaintances in 2019 into a promotional Cowboys for Trump posse to spread his conservative message about gun rights, immigration controls and abortion restrictions.Trump’s election defeat has left the 47-year-old father in a lonely fight for his political life after preaching to crowds at the U.S. Capitol siege, promising to take his guns to Biden’s inauguration and landing in jail for over a week.In Washington, prosecutors unveiled photographs of Griffin climbing a toppled fence and another barrier to access the Capitol steps.Public defense attorneys say a close reading of the law shows the area wasn’t off limits. They say Griffin didn’t partake in violence and was well within his free speech rights as he voiced election grievances and attempted to lead a prayer with a bullhorn.Griffin is one of thousands of Trump loyalists in public office who are charting an uncertain future ahead of the 2022 election cycle. He’s part of a smaller cadre who flirted with insurrection on Trump’s behalf and may still pay a high price. In all, more than 400 people were charged in the insurrection, which left five dead and dozens of officers injured.Griffin has been rebuked by some Republicans over his racial invective. He’s also been suspended from Facebook and banished from Native American lands in his district as he contests charges of breaking into the Capitol grounds and disrupting Congress that could carry a one-year sentence. A recall effort is underway, amid a bevy of lawsuits.Still, loyal constituents are easy to come by in a rural county steeped in the anti-establishment, pro-gun culture that dominates southern New Mexico.“He means no malice on anybody,” said George Seeds, outside the New Heart Cowboy Church in Alamogordo where Griffin once served as pastor. “His concern is the direction of this country, where it’s going.”Defiance of federal government and its oversight of public lands are staples of politics in Otero County, which spans an area three times the size of Delaware, from the dunes of White Sands National Park to the peaks of the Lincoln National Forest.Banned from Washington until testimony or trial, Griffin has returned to the routines of home in a tidy double-wide trailer in Tularosa, working most days as a stone mason. A donkey named Henry brays from a side yard.In a conversation with The Associated Press, Griffin says he learned to love the spotlight during five years as an expert rodeo hand in a Wild West show at Paris’ Disneyland park.His rides with Cowboys for Trump through numerous states were a reprise of proselytizing trips he made from Ireland to Jerusalem, before social media, to hand out the Gospel of John.The group captivated the public imagination with its first outing, a 2019 flag-waving ride down the shore of the Potomac River to Arlington National Cemetery.Ramie Harper, a 67-year-old former bull rider from Fruitland, took a break from making custom hats to join the caravan.“They loved it,” Harper said. “We was on ‘Fox & Friends’ the next day.”With calls for an independent investigation of the Capitol siege blocked by Senate Republicans, Griffin is out on bail and speaking his mind.He’s an advocate for stricter state voting laws and a die-hard opponent of COVID-19 restrictions who says “hell no” to taking the vaccine.Griffin still wears a monogrammed Cowboys for Trump shirt to commission meetings. But his allegiance to Trump has wavered.“I don’t have the same confidence in him,” Griffin said. “Whenever you say, ‘China stole the election. … The election was stolen from me,’ and then you just walk away? That’s hard for me to accept.”He says his obsession with politics has taken a toll, contributing to his 2019 divorce and tensions with relatives.“I’ve had my own family say some pretty nasty things,” Griffin said. “It’s been real hard.”With Trump or without, Griffin still ascribes to unsubstantiated claims of massive 2020 election fraud.He yearns to someday run for governor even though state GOP leaders are openly scornful and Democrats hold every statewide elected office.More immediately, Griffin is eyeing an open 2022 sheriff’s race in another New Mexico county where he grew up. His grandfather Wee Griffin held the Catron County post from 1963 to 1966. Trump won there in 2020 with 73% of the vote.Griffin has cast Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham as his political nemesis on issues of gun control, abortion and pandemic restrictions. He’d like to reinvent the sheriff’s role as a brake on the governor’s power.“The county sheriff’s sole duty and responsibility is to protect our individual rights,” he said. “You think that the governor hates me as a county commissioner — put a gun and a badge on me, and we’ll see.”Jeff Swanson, chairman of the Otero County Democratic Party, says Griffin’s divisive remarks hinder county efforts to secure state infrastructure spending, and he has engaged in intimidation by recording Cowboys for Trump videos from his office with a shotgun within view.In Alamogordo, Griffin’s rhetoric on race has steeled the determination of opponents who want him out of office.Griffin delivered a scathing rebuke last year as the NFL announced game-opening renditions of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the Black national anthem.“They want to destroy our country,” Griffin said in a video monologue. “I got a better idea. Why don’t you go back to Africa and form your little football teams. … You can play on an old beat-out dirt lot.”Everette Brown, a Marine veteran and information technology specialist at Holloman Air Force Base who is Black, said that comment shows politics have changed Griffin, whom he once respected.“I’m a big boy. I can handle a lot. And that was one that got me,” said Brown, part of a committee seeking to recall Griffin.For now, Griffin has halted the petition with an appeal to the state Supreme Court, which hasn’t decided whether to intervene. Meanwhile, state prosecutors are investigating allegations Griffin used his office in coordination with Cowboys for Trump for personal financial gain, and signed a child-support check to his ex-wife from his Cowboys for Trump account.Griffin has acknowledged using the county building for promotional videos but said he never claimed they were affiliated with Otero County. He also says Cowboys for Trump is a for-profit company, not a political group.Donnie Reynolds, a 51-year-old sales associate at an Alamogordo hardware store, says Griffin is being targeted for ties to Trump.He says Griffin is right about lots of things, like the need for a border wall.“They’re going find out he didn’t have anything to do with these types of things,” he said. “They’re going to eat some crow.”