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Civil Suits in Police Shootings

Michael Brown in Ferguson. Eric Garner in Staten Island. Albert Davis in Orlando. Larry Jackson in Austin. Tamir Rice in Cleveland. These are just a few of those fatally shot by police in recent years. Few of the officers involved have been convicted of a crime. Recently, the Washington Post looked at what happens when the victims’ families turn to the civil courts for justice. The Post’s report, entitled Uneven Justice, concludes that there is no consistency in the outcome of these cases. While some plaintiffs are awarded millions, others get nothing at all.

Findings of the Report

The Post examined 59 cases of police officers charged in on-duty shootings in the last decade. Of these 59 officers, only 11 were convicted of a crime and served time. Forty-six of the families of those shot and killed filed civil lawsuits. Of those 46, 32 received monetary awards, primarily in the form of settlements. The amount of these awards ranged from $7,500 to $8.5 million. Most lawsuits are filed against an officer’s employer, rather than the officer as an individual, because officers tend to have few financial assets. Thus, most settlements occurred between the family and the city, county or state for which the officer worked.

Civil rights lawsuits involving police shootings are generally brought under a federal civil rights statute dating back to 1871. The original intent behind this law, Section 1983 of Title 42 of the U.S. Code, was in part to provide an avenue for civil recovery for Ku Klux Klan abuses in the southern states. The law permits civil liability when a person acting “under color of law” (for example, a police officer) deprives a person of rights secured by the U.S. Constitution. To recover under this law for a police shooting, the family must show that the officer acted unreasonably.

Two cases in particular described in the Post article illustrate the heartbreaking inconsistencies of the civil recovery system. In one case, an Arkansas state trooper shot and killed an unarmed 21-year-old man. The man’s mother sued the state, which settled the suit for one million dollars. Subsequently, the trooper pled guilty to negligent homicide and served 54 days in jail. In the other case, a Phoenix police officer shot an unarmed man and pled guilty to manslaughter. That officer is currently serving seven years. But, the Post explains, Arizona law provides immunity for city governments for police behavior unless they knew the officer was likely to abuse his authority. Consequently, the Phoenix man’s family could only recover against the officer himself. Although the court ordered the officer to pay $8.5 million, he has virtually no assets and the family has yet to recover a dime.

The Post likened the odds of receiving compensation in these civil rights cases to “the spin of a roulette wheel.” Even for families who do receive financial awards, however, money cannot restore what they have lost. All it can do, they told the Post, is establish that police actions have consequences – that no one is above the law.

Consult a Florida Civil Rights Attorney

If you believe your civil rights or the civil rights of someone in your family have been violated, the Florida lawyers of The Baez Law Firm can help you obtain justice. Contact the experienced civil rights attorneys of The Baez Law Firm for a consultation today.

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