Lawmakers to propose expansion of police immunity bill

Police form a line to disallow access for a protest march through Center City on June 1, 2020 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Demonstrations have erupted all across the country in response to George Floyd's death in Minneapolis, Minnesota, while in police custody. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Police officers would have increased immunity against lawsuits under a bill advancing quickly through the Iowa House.

Senate File 476 defines “qualified immunity,” a legal principle that would make officers immune to some lawsuits if they violate a law that is “not sufficiently clear.” In an early March debate on the legislation, proponents of the bill said this would protect officers who acted in high-pressure situations from legal action, while critics said it could shield police from accountability.

The bill also includes changes to the peace officer bill of rights. If a complaint is filed against an officer, that officer will be able to see who filed the complaint and details about the allegations. The officer would also be allowed to pursue a civil claim against someone who files a false report.

The Senate passed SF 476 on March 8, sending it to the House for consideration. A House subcommittee and committee passed the bill in back-to-back meetings Wednesday morning, making the proposal eligible for floor debate.

Leaders on the Public Safety Committee said Wednesday that they intend to amend the bill on the House floor to more closely match House File 721, an earlier proposal on the same issue. Public Safety Chair Rep. Jarad Klein called the Senate bill a “vehicle for ‘Back the Blue’ legislation.” 

Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, said that House lawmakers will add the following amendments to the bill:

  • Sick leave and health insurance. Public safety employees could claim their unused sick leave at retirement, using the would-be paid time off to pay for their health insurance premiums.
  • Duty to carry firearms. The initial House proposal would require peace officers to carry a firearm at all times. Holt said Wednesday that the amendment would allow peace officers to be armed, but would not require it.
  • Laser crimes. An amendment will criminalize shining a laser in the eyes of a police officer.
  • Blocking roadways. An amendment will introduce new penalties for blocking a roadway during a protest or demonstration. It will also include liability for drivers who accidentally hit someone demonstrating in the road.
  • Penalties for riot and unlawful assembly. The bill will include language from Gov. Kim Reynolds’ “Back the Blue” proposal that changes the penalty for rioting to a class “D” felony and the penalty for unlawful assembly to an aggravated misdemeanor.

Democrats in committee asked why the bill, which includes some provisions from the “Back the Blue” proposal, does not also include her suggested ban on racial profiling.

“I think if we really want to do an all-inclusive bill that helps the Blue and helps the citizens, we need to do something all-inclusive,” said Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City. She also noted that mental health should be included in the legislation.

Klein, R-Keota, said that there was not consensus with the Senate to include racial profiling in the bill.

Next steps

  • The House will need to consider Senate File 476 with amendments in a floor debate.
  • If the House votes to pass the bill, it will travel back to the Senate for approval of any changes.
  • If the Senate approves the bill with amendments, Gov. Kim Reynolds may sign the bill into law.