Never in history has there been a time when the conduct, and misconduct, of the police been under the microscope. Society has finally decided the time has arrived to hold police and municipalities accountable for their misconduct. Still, even though the culture seeks to hold police responsible for civil rights violations, the law lags behind with a number of restrictive hurdles to clear before a person injured by police misconduct can successfully sue the men and women in blue. 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 provides a path to suing police and police departments for violation of civil rights.
42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 created a personal cause of action to protect a person’s civil rights when he or she is injured under “color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia 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”.
In this article, we will look at the elements of a claim under 42 U.C.S.C. § 1983 and the common defenses relied on by defendants in defending those claims.
The Elements of § 1983
The elements of a § 1983 claim in Michigan are clear: "1) [Plaintiff] was deprived of a right secured by the federal Constitution or laws of the United States; 2) the deprivation was caused by a person acting under color of state law; and 3) the deprivation occurred without due process of the law." O'Brien v. City of Grand Rapids, 23 F.3d 990, 995 (6th Cir 1994). There is no requirement that the defendant's conduct was outrageous or that plaintiff's injury was extreme. To the contrary, the Courts have often upheld damages under § 1983 without requiring any such showing. Chatman v. Slagle, 107 F.3d 380, 384 (6th Cir. 1997).
The most common police misconduct case involves situations with “excessive force”. Most of us are familiar with news reports of police using more force, or “excessive force”, than was necessary to apprehend a fleeing or alleged threatening criminal. In those instances where the police beat, shoot, or otherwise use excessive force on a suspected criminal, 42 U.C.S.C. § 1983 allows the victim to seek a financial recovery if he or she can establish the violation of a federal Constitution right, such as: (1) the right to liberty protected in the substantive component of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, which includes personal safety, freedom from captivity, and a right to medical care and protection; and/or, (2) the right to fair and equal treatment guaranteed and protected by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. There may be additional Constitutional, or federal statutory, rights that a victim can be established, although the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments will generally be involved.
Once the injured person establishes the deprivation of a Constitutional or federal right, then the second element is that the deprivation was “under color of state law”. This element is established by showing that a police officer was acting in his or her formal capacity as a police officer. The third element of the deprivation occurring without the due process of law can frequently be shown through when, where, and how the officer deprived the injured person.
If each of these elements can be established, then the victim of police misconduct can establish a prima facie case under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983. By establishing a prima facie case, the victim will get to a jury who can determine the merits of his or her case, including the damages to be awarded.
One hurdle that often upends a case filed under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 is the doctrine of “qualified immunity”. Qualified immunity protects officers from civil liability so long as they do not violate clearly established constitutional rights by engaging in objectively unreasonable conduct under the circumstances. Reliance on a judicially issued warrant is not objectively unreasonable, and thus an arrest pursuant to a facially valid warrant is normally a complete defense to a federal constitutional claim for false arrest made pursuant to 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983. But an officer may not rely on a facially valid warrant as satisfactory evidence of probable cause when evidence exists that a defendant intentionally mislead or intentionally omitted information to obtain the warrant provided that the misleading or omitted information is critical to the finding of probable cause. Put differently, an officer is not entitled to qualified immunity if a § 1983 plaintiff makes (1) a substantial showing that the officer stated a deliberate falsehood or showed reckless disregard for the truth and (2) that the allegedly false or omitted information was material to the finding of probable cause.
Under Michigan law, a government employee enjoys a right to (qualified) immunity if (1) the employee undertook the challenged acts during the course of his employment and was acting, or reasonably believed that he was acting, within the scope of his authority; (2) the employee undertook the challenged acts in good faith or without malice; and (3) the acts were discretionary, rather than ministerial, in nature_. Zavatson v. City of Warren,_ 714 Fed. Appx. 512, 514 (6th Cir. 2017).
Generally, a police misconduct case is limited to an individual person—not a municipality. However, a municipality may be a viable defendant under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 in certain limited circumstances. A municipality may be held liable without "a pattern of past misconduct" only when the record shows "a complete failure to train the police force, or training that is so reckless or grossly negligent that future police misconduct is almost inevitable or would properly be characterized as substantially certain to result." Hays v. Jefferson Cty., 668 F.2d 869, 874 (6th Cir. 1982)
The ability to sue municipal defendants is important because they have the financial resources to properly compensate victims of police misconduct. Equally important in the current world we live, municipalities do not want to find themselves defending rouge officers. Together, these ideas set the groundwork to make a meaningful settlement more likely than in the past.
At Arnold E. Reed & Associates, P.C., we are a team of experienced litigators. We understand how to manage and litigate a 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 case. We can help you get the compensation for the damages the police have caused you.