WASHINGTON ― A pair of bills introduced in the House and the Senate would make assaulting law enforcement officers a federal offense and suing cops for civil rights violations more difficult.
Under the Back the Blue Act, introduced on May 16 by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) in the Senate and Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) in the House, suing cops in federal court for violating the constitutional rights of civilians will be limited.
The bill introduced in the Senate states that individuals who were “engaged in felonies or crimes of violence” would be blocked from receiving damages for any violations that occurred during “any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in the judicial capacity of that officer.”
So, even if the individual can prove their rights were violated by an officer, police departments would be able to claim an individual’s injuries were a result of that person’s conduct which, to quote the bill, “more likely than not, constituted a felony or a crime of violence.”
It would also treat assault on a police officer leading to bodily harm as a federal crime carrying a mandatory minimum of two to 10 years in prison, depending on if the harm was minor, “substantial” or “serious.” If a weapon was used during the assault, the charge would carry a 20 year mandatory minimum regardless of the harm inflicted on the officer.
Both caveats would have brash consequences for civilians ― particularly black and Latinx people who tend to have more unnecessary contact with law enforcement. For instance, an officer could justify their use of excessive force by charging someone with felony assault ― an issue explained by HuffPost in January regarding Louisiana’s law that made attacks on police a “hate crime.”
It could also have an impact on political demonstrations. For example if a police officer attempts to restrain a protester and that person makes a movement the officer interprets as threatening, a minor trespassing or disturbing the peace charge could be upgraded to assault.
But in light of the new bill, a civilian, regardless of whether or not they were “engaged in felonies,” could be hit with a federal charge and possible federal prison time without the option to seek damages for a civil rights violation.
The proposed law would also make it a federal offense to murder, attempt to murder or conspiring to murder a federal judge, a first responder or a state or local law enforcement official who works for any agency that receives federal funding. And almost all law enforcement agencies ― including local police departments ― receive federal funding.
Defendants, if found guilty, would face the federal death penalty and a mandatory minimum of 30 years in federal prison.
The bill also mandates that no more than $20 million be granted to local law enforcement agencies so that they can “promote trust and ensure legitimacy” with the communities they serve.
If passed, the bill could be legally redundant. All 50 states have statutes, or “aggravating factors,” that automatically increase the penalties for violent attacks on law enforcement officers, according to the Anti-Defamation League. And Louisiana and Kentucky have made violent attacks on police a hate crime in the past year.
Cornyn has said the bill was a way of showing “unparalleled support” to law enforcement.
“Law enforcement officers selflessly put their lives on the line everyday to protect our communities, and in return they deserve our unparalleled support for the irreplaceable role they serve,” Cornyn told The Dallas Morning News last year. “The Back the Blue Act sends a clear message that our criminal justice system simply will not tolerate those who viciously and deliberately target our law enforcement.”
Poe has made similar comments.
Cornyn and Poe’s offices did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
The 2016 bills didn’t pass, but the political climate was different. Former President Barack Obama’s administration focused on sentencing reforms and prosecutors placing crimes into context when deciding on prison time. Obama was also vocal about the need to reform police departments and better their relationship with the communities they serve.
President Donald Trump, on the other hand, has vowed to be harder on crime and end what he calls the “anti-police atmosphere” in the U.S. Trump has said protests against widely-publicized police violence has provoked the murder of police officers and that calls for reform are “anti-law enforcement.” He also believes that calls for police accountability have caused a “war on cops.”
A May 10 memo from current Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed Obama’s policy, mandating that federal prosecutors “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense” possible against defendants charged with a federal crime. The memo also requires federal prosecutors to get approval from the U.S. Attorney or an assistant Attorney General if they wish to pursue a lesser charge.
The Back the Blue Act, if passed, would take prosecutorial aggressiveness a step further.
Currently, any attacks on law enforcement are handled by state and local jurisdictions. This would continue under the law unless the U.S. attorney doesn’t like the way a case is being handled, which could pose an issue since many jurisdictions have elected district attorneys looking to reform criminal sentencing laws and police departments. As criminal justice reporter Radley Balko explained in The Washington Post:
In a few places, such as Philadelphia, Chicago and Houston, the new DAs were elected specifically after campaigning on policing issues, or in response to a past incumbent’s inattention to police abuse. If this bill passes, a U.S. attorney more sympathetic to law enforcement could thwart those efforts by, for example, charging a high-profile victim of police abuse with the new federal crime of assaulting a police officer. It wouldn’t be difficult. We’ve seen plenty of video now where a clear victim of police brutality was initially arrested and charged with battering one of the officers who beat him.
If the new bill were to go into effect, federal prosecutors would have full discretion to overrule a state or local court if “the verdict or sentence obtained pursuant to State charges left demonstratively unvindicated the Federal interest in eradicating bias-motivated violence” or if “a prosecution by the United States is in the public interest and necessary to secure substantial justice.”