Ferguson…. Garner… What the heck is going on in America? Police violence has been plastered all over our televisions lately in a way we haven’t seen since Rodney King. This week’s blog post is about police brutality and what you need to know. Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” a well-known quote from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, refers to the benefits of openness and transparency and the quote is as relevant today as it was when Brandeis said it in 1913.
I wish I could say that that cop-on-civilian violence is a relatively new phenomenon. It’s not. It’s been going on ever since we have had government. It just used to be different. We never saw it on the news, on facebook, on social media, blasting from every twitter and facebook like we do now. The reasons behind this could be the subject of a 700 page doctorate psychology paper, but the main reason we are hearing about it so much lately is the prevalence of video technology everywhere. Virtually everyone has a video camera in their pocket at all times in the form of a cell phone. Cops are now required to have cameras in their cars turned on. Jail cells now have video. There are security cameras in most of our major cities at intersections. Even the party store on the corner of your street probably has a surveillance system.
Hundreds of years ago when the nightwatch of the King’s castle beat some poor peasant in a dark alley, there was no one to tell-the-tale. No video. No instant upload to facebook. No twitter feed. No pictures. This dynamic has remained relatively true until very recently.
This Would Never Happen In America
Before I spent the majority of my waking hour representing people who have been in horrible life-changing incidents, I echoed this sentiment. My very first case involved an African-American man named DaJuan living in one of the very worst neighborhoods in Detroit. He called our office claiming he was savagely beaten with batons by no less than four Detroit Police officers for no real reason at the MGM casino in Detroit. DaJuan didn’t have a car or the money to get to our law office, so I had to drive down into the worst part of Detroit to see him at his house.
As I sat on his couch in a bombed out neighborhood on Detroit’s westside, DaJuan told me an incredible story. His Uncle had just died an early and violent death. After the service, some close family went to the MGM Grand casino, where they had rented a room for the night. DaJuan claimed that as he wait in the lobby of the casino, he was approached by four fully armed Detroit police officers who began to interrogate him. DaJuan, just having lost his uncle, mouthed off a little, told them to leave him alone, and then turned his back and began to slowly walk away. DaJuan claims at that point an officer jumped on his back and put him in a choke hold and three other officers began to savagely beat him with billy clubs as he lay on the ground, breaking several ribs and giving him permanent neck and lung problems.
I didn’t believe him. Why would the police do that? I was sure that either (1) he was lying all together; or (2) he did something to precipitate the encounter and was resisting a legitimate arrest. Police don’t just beat people. I told DaJuan i would look into it, but if he was lying to me I wasn’t going to help him.
The next day i contacted the MGM Grand and eventually convinced them to let me see the video. I went downtown and sat with MGM’s attorney as they showed me the video. I could not believe my eyes. Everything DaJuan said was true. It literally made me sick.
It’s scary to think that this kind of thing can go on in America. And to make matters worse, no one believed DaJuan. He had been telling people his stories for months and no one would listen. He sat in jail for days. He suffered broken bones. He has life long injures. And even his own attorney didn’t believe what he had to say. If there had not been a video no one would have taken his case. DaJuan changed my life and set me on the path to being a civil rights lawyer.
DaJuan would have no voice without a lawsuit. He would have no justice. And we would not know the truth.
WHAT TYPE OF RIGHTS ARE PROTECTED?
Under federal law, every American can bring a lawsuit against the police or any governmental actor who violates his or her constitutional rights. So what are protected rights?
- Excessive Force Or Assaults
You have a right to be free from excessive force or bodily harm from the government. Even prisoners in a jail have a right to be free from assaults by guards. Sometime this is easy and you “know it when you see it”: brutal beatings; shooting an unarmed man who posed no threat; smashing someone’s head into the ground. Other times this is a closer call such as tazing someone or using pepper spray, or even tightening someone’s cuffs to the point of nerve damage.
You have a right to be free from unlawful seizure. You are “seized” when you no longer have the right to leave. You do not have to be put under arrest to be seized. In the case of DaJuan, he was seized when the officers did not allow him to walk away. Unlawful seizure also can include being falsely arrested and/or kept in jail for a period of time.
You have a right not to have your body, your house, your car, etc., searched and rummaged through for no valid reason. This right is often implicated in the context of illegal police entry in homes or business, but can also be of other private property.
You have a right to free speech and to express your ideas and viewpoints, even if other people don’t like your speech or your speech is in bad taste. An infamous example of this is the Westboro Baptist Church protesting military funerals and delivering hate speech to homosexuals.
If you are in prison or jail, you have a right to have your obvious medical needs cared for. An example of this is a person suffering from a gunshot wound who is thrown in a jail cell and dies.
Everyone has a right to equal protection under the law. An example of a violation of this would be a traffic checkpoint that only stopped African-Americans.
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO IF YOUR RIGHTS ARE VIOLATED?
These are just a few broad examples the areas of constitutional rights I am most commonly asked about. Civil rights law is one of the most complicated and difficult areas of the law. Most attorneys will not practice it. How to handle a civil rights lawsuit is not taught in law school. Civil rights cases are costly, time consuming, and very nuanced. Even if your rights were violated, the police or government have many defenses available. They hire the best lawyers and it is very intimidating going up against the police. You should contact an attorney as soon as you can after a possible violation of your rights in order to evaluate your claim.
I have been very successful in helping persons whose civil rights have been violated. Earlier this year, we represented a man who was arrested and beaten in a jail cell for refusing to answer police questions. There was no video of the beating and the police denied liability. Jim and I were able to secure nearly a $370,000 settlement after a several year court battle.
Last year, we represented a man who was tazed by the police while standing at the front window of his house. The man refused to open the door for police so an officer shot him from a distance of 5 feet. The tazer was shot as such a close range that the impact caused the homeowner to fall backwards and down a flight of stairs, dislocating his shoulder. Under controlled cross-examination, the officer nonchalantlytestified under oath that he made our client “ride the lightning”. After a protracted court battle, we won victory for the client.
Next year, we will be going to trial in a case where an off duty police officer, who had just been partying at a Red Wings game and local bars, pistol whipped our client with his .357 magnum in a parking lot. The local police responded and then allowed the off-duty police officer to leave. The officer is still patrolling the streets as we speak. And guess what? This officer was the very same one who tazed the homeowner in the story above. The officer was actually promoted after that incident. He knows us pretty well by now since we have been suing him for years.
I believe that most police officers are genuinely good people trying to keep our communities safe. But these things DO happen. Our access to the court system for these violations is a way to keep us safe and keep the good cops out there on the streets. Civil rights cases are absolutely necessary to expose the truth. It’s not about the money. It’s about taking a stand and sending a message.
If you want further information on this topic feel free to contact me.