Police officers may only use force reasonably necessary to do what the law requires them to do. But where is the reasonableness in the following examples?
- An off-duty, reserve officer for the Los Angeles Police Department is irate because he scratched his truck against a plumber’s van while coming out of his apartment building’s subterranean parking lot. This “loose cannon” gets out of his truck and loudly and repeatedly screams for the elderly resident manager, cursing all the while. When she appears accompanied by her electrician, the “officer” rushes at both of them causing the electrician to lose his footing and trip. While falling, the electrician simply bumps the officer causing the officer to draw his gun, order the electrician to his knees, handcuff him, scream obscenities at him and repeatedly jab the muzzle of his pistol into the kneeling, handcuffed man’s head while threatening to kill him on the spot. The electrician is arrested and prosecuted for assault on a peace officer.
- A student of obviously Middle Eastern heritage is studying in a UCLA library when a student security guard demands that he – and only he – produce an ID. The student, sensitive to discrimination experienced by many Middle Easterners in modern times, says he’ll produce his ID if the guard first asks a student with obvious European ancestry to produce an ID. Instead, the guard calls for campus police who arrive while the student is on his way out of the library. Rather than just let it go, the officers (one of whom has a history of excessive force complaints including the apparently unnecessary use of deadly force) accost the student, prevent him from leaving and ultimately shoot him multiple times with a taser gun, even while he’s down on the ground. The incident is captured on video by a fellow student and his camera phone.
- The driver of a pickup truck full of probably illegal immigrants is running from police. The truck stops and most of the occupants jump out and run. A couple of the people who were in the bed of the truck don’t run and even though they’re not resisting are mercilessly beaten by baton-wielding LA County Sheriff’s deputies while a helicopter records the scene from above.
- A San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department deputy is holding the passenger of a stopped car, an off duty member of the Armed Services on leave from Iraq, at gunpoint. The passenger is trying to comply with the deputy’s commands to get up off the ground when the deputy suddenly shoots him several times. Unbeknownst to the deputy, the incident is being videotaped.
Each of these incidents resulted in the filing of an excessive force complaint (and at least one in the filing of criminal charges against the officer). In most of these incidents, the offending officer lost his job. Most claims, however, are not so clear cut – largely because most claims don’t have videotape to back up the allegations of one side or the other. Still, using witness testimony and other methods, many excessive force complaints can be proven – and it is up to lawyers to prove them.
Each police misconduct claim is different. All turn on the law as it applies to the facts. The most important of these laws is 42 United States Code section 1983 (42 USC § 1983 or just “section 1983” for short). It provides as follows:
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, except that in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer’s judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable. For the purposes of this section, any Act of Congress applicable exclusively to the District of Columbia shall be considered to be a statute of the District of Columbia.
What this law means, in short, is that no person to whom the law applies may act under “color of authority” to deprive another person of their civil rights under the Constitution. Violators are subject to civil damages. The law applies to states and territories of the US, but not to federal civil rights violations (which are pursued under another theory called a “Bivens” claim).
The laws relating to section 1983 are complex and ever-evolving, and include many US Supreme Court opinions interpreting section 1983; contact Mr. Babachanian to discuss what needs to be done to make things right.