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Civil rights, 1983 lawsuits, liability

After the incident that I last blogged about, where a Canton, OH police officer threatened a pair of citizens with physical force, I listened to the recording of the City Council President, where he gives his opinion on the whole incident:

The Council President states that the police officer’s actions were logical because the person involved was legally carrying a concealed weapon in a bad neighborhood at 1:30 in the morning, around prostitutes and drug dealers. Excusing the cop’s actions in this manner is a bit of a problem. Let me explain why:

42 USC 1983 provides that, “Every person who under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, Suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress

Meaning that the citizen involved gets to sue both of the officers who violated his rights by threatening harm to him, and will probably be successful. You can sue cities and counties under 1983 in what is called a Monell claim. Under Monell, to hold a municipality liable you need to show that your constitutional injury was caused by a policy or custom of the municipality. Monell liability can be established where a municipal official with final policy-making authority ratifies a subordinate’s unconstitutional conduct and the basis for it. The theory behind municipal liability in this context is that the acts of persons with final policy-making authority are considered to be the equivalent of government policy.

To establish municipal liability, a claimant must show a persistent and pervasive practice of the police department in failing to respond to police misconduct. While a single act of misconduct is insufficient to establish municipal liability, a person in a policy making position can show that the unconstitutional behavior of the municipality approved of the act, and thus made the act a de facto policy. In police brutality cases, the municipal entity’s liability can be established by showing that the city encourageed or authorized the conduct.

By stating that the incident that took place is to be expected when people carry concealed weapons in compliance with state law, he has authorized the officer’s conduct and opened himself and the city to a 1983 lawsuit. Damage awards in civil rights cases can be high. In 2007, a man won over three million dollars for damages he suffered from false arrest and other indignities by Oakland, California police officers. That award included punitive damages.