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Friday September 26, 2014

Standing up for your Constitutional Rights Through 42 U.S.C. 1983
posted by Rachel T. Caudel
Tags: In the news 

On September 10, 2014, barely one month after the events in Ferguson, Missouri, police outside a fast food restaurant in Saratoga Springs, Utah fatally Darrien Hunt, a 22-year old cosplaying, or dressed as, as Mugen from the popular anime Samurai Champloo. While police allege he lunged at them with a samurai sword, evidence indicates the sword in question was a prop or souvenir sword with a rounded edge, rather than a blade, and initial autopsy reports indicate Hunt had suffered six bullet wounds — two to a leg, and one in a hand, an elbow, a shoulder and mid-chest, all from the back, which is difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile with Mr. Hunt lunging at police.  

Police brutality is one of the most serious and enduring human rights violations in the United States today and it is not limited to extreme cases of deadly force like the tragic cases of Mr. Hunt in Utah or Michael Brown in Ferguson. Police brutality occurs any time a law enforcement officer crosses the line between assertive law enforcement and violent conduct by using more force than is necessary to carry out his or her job, be it subjecting peaceful protesters to clubbing by police sticks and release of harmful chemicals; refusing to take a wounded arrestee to a hospital; or dropping off an intoxicated drunk driver on the side of the road to walk home through a dangerous area.  One means by which victims may seek redress is under 42 U.S.C.  1983 (commonly referred to as "Section 1983"), which provides a civil cause of action against governmental actors who deprive individuals of their constitutional rights. Section 1983 does grant additional rights to citizens, but it serves as the mechanism for individuals to bring a private, civil cause of action for violations of their constitutionally protected rights. These actions fulfill two primary purposes: compensating victims through an award of monetary damages and making police officers and departments accountable for not adhering to constitutionally required standards of conduct.  This article will discuss some of the most common examples of Section 1983 lawsuits.

The most common Section 1983 claims are those of excessive force, ranging from death cases like those described above to simple injury cases, all of which are brought under the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable seizures, and less commonly, under the prohibition against unreasonable searches.  In making a search or arrest, an officer has the right to use such force as a reasonable officer would believe is necessary under the circumstances to complete the search or effectuate what a reasonable officer would believe to be a lawful arrest. The “reasonableness” of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene and this inquiry is an objective one. The question is whether an officer’s actions are “objectively reasonable” in light of all the facts and circumstances confronting him/her, without regard to his/her underlying intent or motivation. Good intentions will not make an unreasonable use of force proper. However, it must be shown that the officer intentionally used more force than is necessary. Mere negligence is not sufficient. A victim has had his or her constitutional rights violated and may be entitled to relief any time an officer has intentionally used an unreasonable amount of force in making an arrest, search, or stop.

Another common Section 1983 claim is for "deliberate indifference" to a "serious medical need" for an arrestee or detainee in custody under the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable seizures or the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, depending on whether the victim is an arrestee, detainee, or prisoner. When an arrestee, detainee, or inmate is denied medical attention and the need for medical attention is serious, a violation of that person’s constitutional rights has occurred.  The need for medical attention must be genuine and objectively serious, and the victim must be able to demonstrate that the officer knew the victim was in need of medical attention. A victim has had his or her constitutional rights violated and may be entitled to relief any time he or she has had a genuine serious medical condition of which they have made an officer aware, but the officer has refused to allow the victim medical treatment.

Though less frequent and more difficult to prove, Section 1983 claims can also be brought where the police created a danger that harmed the individual. An example of this type of case is when police are called to break up a bar fight, eject the intoxicated fighter from the bar and take his keys on a cold night and the man later suffers from hypothermia; or when police make a DUI stop arrest the driver and leave the intoxicated passenger to walk through a high crime area where she is attacked.  When police take action like this that puts the victim in harm’s way, they have violated that individual’s constitutional rights if they have acted recklessly or with deliberate indifference to the safety of the victim.

All of these claims (as well as other, less common, Section 1983 claims) claims may be brought in either federal or state court, in conjunction with other claims such as state law claims for battery.  In addition to allowing victims another cause of action, Section 1983 has some advantages of its own. One advantage to Section 1983 litigation is the statute’s provision allowing parties who prevail under Section 1983 to collect reasonable attorneys’ fees from the Defendant. Not only does this reduce the cost of litigation to the victim and allow the victim to pursue a case that may otherwise not be cost effective (for example when the victim’s actual damages are low and litigation on a contingent fee basis would be cost-prohibitive), it also helps encourage settlement and raise the value of settlement offers substantially defendants always have the statutory obligation to pay their opponents’ fees if they lose.  

If you were injured when police failed to observe boundaries of appropriate professional conduct and violated your constitutional rights, contact our office to schedule a consultation.