House passes police qualified immunity, enhanced penalties for rioting

The Iowa House passed an expanded "Back the Blue" bill on April 14, 2021. (Photo via Commonwealth of Massachusetts)

From increased penalties for rioting to qualified immunity for police officers, several of the session’s major policing proposals came together Wednesday in a bill approved by the Iowa House.

Debate on the Senate File 342 lasted over two hours as Democrats spoke against the tougher criminal penalties, law enforcement officers shared their perspectives and lawmakers reflected on the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. 

The House voted 63-30 to pass the bill, sending it back to the Senate for consideration.

How did we get here?

Amid last year’s protests, lawmakers collaborated on a bipartisan police reform bill to ban chokeholds, revoke certifications for officers who were fired due to misconduct, give the Iowa Attorney General power to investigate officer wrongdoing that results in death and require implicit bias and de-escalation training.

Democrats and Republicans alike called the bill “a good start.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds in January proposed her “Back the Blue Act” legislation to extend some protections to police officers while also banning racial profiling and mandating the collection of race data from traffic stops. The Des Moines Black Liberation Movement condemned the proposal. When it first came up in the Senate, the bill also faced opposition from several police groups.

Lawmakers in both chambers broke the bill into parts. The racial profiling ban was not taken up in either chamber, and the Iowa House Black Caucus has called on Gov. Kim Reynolds to veto any bill that makes it to her desk without it.

The House on Wednesday added parts of several policing proposals to Senate File 342, which began the night as a four-page document and became a wide-ranging, 33-page “Back the Blue” bill.

Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, said he wished the path to Wednesday’s legislation was more similar to last year’s collaboration.

“I would have loved (for) the NAACP, LULAC and others to be able to get represented, to sit down and work on this bill together,” he said, referring to civil rights advocacy organizations. 

Higher fines, longer sentences for some protest-adjacent crimes

The 2020 Black Lives Matter protests lingered on the minds of legislators in Wednesday’s debate. Rep. Jarad Klein, R-Keota, said peaceful protests were “a healthy thing” but that demonstrations should not block roadways, cause violence or harrass people nearby. 

“What we’ve seen is not peaceful protesting,” he said. “What we’ve seen is destruction and damage in our communities that we should not be standing for.”

The bill would introduce higher penalties for some crimes:

  • Blocking a street or sidewalk would become a serious misdemeanor.
  • Rioting (“three or more persons assembled together in a violent and disturbing manner” who use force or cause property damage) would become a Class D felony.
  • Unlawful assembly would become an aggravated misdemeanor.
  • Defacing or destroying any publicly owned property, including statues or monuments, would be criminal mischief in the second degree.
State Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad is a Democrat from Des Moines. (Photo courtesy of the Iowa Legislature)

Abdul-Samad responded that further criminalization of protests was not progress, but rather a reactionary move from the Legislature.

“You have young people that reacted to pain, young adults that were hurt,” Abdul-Samad said. “Everyone didn’t tear up a building — a lot of those young people stopped individuals from tearing up buildings.”

He emphasized the importance of listening and working together, as lawmakers did last year.

“Are we reacting in parts of this bill? Are we reacting to a situation that happened that we didn’t have control over?” Abdul-Samad asked.

Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, also objected to the legislation. Protesters who commit small crimes would now face “arbitrarily selected penalties that won’t do anything to make Iowans safer.”

“These people are still going to protest, because this is their life that they are dealing with … We’re just making sure that they are severely punished for that,” Wolfe said.

In addition to changing the consequences for some crimes, the bill would also create some new offenses. Shining a laser at someone with the intent to injure would be an assault. (The bill clarifies that laser-related health procedures and laser tag games do not count.)

The bill also introduces a new roadway offense: a driver who does not pull over for an unmarked police car commits a serious misdemeanor. The peace officer in the car does not need to be uniformed.

Meanwhile, drivers who encounter protests would have more legal protection under the legislation. If a demonstration was blocking the road unlawfully and a driver “who is exercising due care” hits a protester, that driver would be immune from civil liability for the injury.

Bill would introduce qualified immunity, other protections for police officers

The bill also introduces several provisions to protect the identity and legal standing of police officers, including:

  • Police officers, prosecutors and judges may join the address confidentiality program;
  • Police officers may not be prohibited from carrying a firearm while working;
  • An officer cannot be fired solely due to their presence on a Brady list, although the action that put them on the Brady list may lead to discipline;
  • Police officers will have qualified immunity in lawsuits against them.

“Qualified immunity” means that someone suing a police officer would need to prove that the officer violated their rights, and that the officer broke a law that was “clearly established.” This is the federal precedent for police officers, the Des Moines Register reported, but the Iowa Supreme Court set a stricter standard: officers must have “exercised all due care to conform to the requirements of the law” in order to have immunity.

Rep. Christina Bohannan, D-Iowa City, said Wednesday that qualified immunity was “one of the most widely-criticized doctrines in all of federal law.”

“No matter how egregious the misconduct is, no matter how wrong we all agree that it is, there would be liability unless it violates ‘clearly-established law,’” she said.

Rep. Jon Thorup, R-Knoxville, who serves as an Iowa state trooper, told the story of approaching an intoxicated man with a hunting knife. The junior officers on the scene, he said, “were worried about getting in trouble, not doing something exactly the way maybe their management would want them to.”

Thorup said that, while attorneys had hours to consider the law, first responders often have seconds to act in a dangerous situation.

“It would definitely let most of us worry about the knives and not worry so much about getting in trouble with management,” he said.

State Rep. Jarad Klein is a Republican from Keota. (Photo courtesy of the Iowa Legislature)

Klein emphasized that the legislation was not meant to protect “bad cops.” 

“We’re not saying we want to protect bad officers,” he said. “What we want to do is make sure that our law enforcement officers who are acting within the law and within the scope of their duty … they are protected from lawsuits.”

Finally, the bill would introduce a penalty for any locality that tried to prohibit a police department from enforcing certain laws. Democrats in the House said this could remove the ability for police to use discretion when enforcing the law.

Klein objected, saying officers will still have discretion.

“But discretion does not mean ignoring state law enforcement,” he said. “If we just ignore willy-nilly what laws we’re going to be enforcing in this state, then what the heck are we even doing here?”

Do you have questions about how the Legislature is handling policing? What stories about criminal justice do you want to see? Email Katie Akin at [email protected].

Katie Akin
Reporter Katie Akin began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.