The Los Angeles Times reported today (see article here) that the California Highway Patrol has agreed to settle a civil rights police brutality claim for $1.5 Million. The plaintiff, Marlene Pinnock, was a 51 year old woman who was held on the ground and repeatedly punched by a CHP officer on the side of the 10 freeway near Los Angeles. The beating was videotaped by a passing motorist and the videotape sparked widespread protest. I thought I would use this incident to explore the legal aspects of such claims.
What is the legal standard for a civil rights violation or other claims for personal injury in California and under Federal Law related to police brutality?
The main statute pertinent to these types of claims is a federal statute found in chapter 42 of the United States Code at section 1983 which states, in pertinent part, 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 …”.
To break this down into elements, a person claiming to have had their civil rights violated by actions of a “peace” officer would need to show the following:
- That the police officer was a “person” acting “under the color of state law.” This requires a showing that the law enforcement official was acting in their official capacity at the time of the incident. In this CHP beating case example, the officer was clearly “in the line of duty” at the time of the incident, in uniform and acting in his official capacity as a highway patrolman.
- The “subjects or causes to to be subjected” is a causation requirement. In other words there must be some act or failure to act on the part of state officials that caused a violation of civil rights. Clearly there was a beating of an individual in this case that caused physical or emotional harm, however, the argument to hold the state agency (in this case CHP) responsible would be either a lack of training, supervision, or some other policy or procedural violation.
- The language “deprivation of rights … secured by the Constitution and laws” requires that the constitutional rights are violated. In the case of police misconduct claims like this one, the principal constitutional provisions that may be violated are found in the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unlawful arrest, imprisonment or excessive force by police and the Fourteenth Amendment, which mandates “due process of law” to individuals suspected of criminal activity. In other words, the argument here would be that the victim had a right to be detained or arrested through proper legal process and without being subjected to excessive force on the part of the police officer.
In addition, tort laws in California would allow for individual causes of action against the officer for assault, battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. A civil assault is defined as intentional acts which cause another person to be placed in fear for their safety and a battery is unlawful or offensive physical contact of an individual by another person. (See: California Civil Jury Instruction 1301 – Assault and California Civil Jury Instruction 1300 – Battery ). The tort of inflicting emotional distress requires intentional “extreme conduct” which causes “severe emotional distress” and was either intentional or done with a “reckless disregard of the probability that the plaintiff [person bringing suit] would suffer emotional distress.” California Civil Jury Instruction 1600 . There are also California state statutes which may come into play such as the “Unruh Civil Rights Act” found in California Civil Code 51 and 52 which prohibits denial of civil liberties based upon immutable characteristics such as “race, gender, ancestry, religion, national origin, disability or medical condition”. While there are many other state and federal laws that may be implicated in a police misconduct claim in California, these would be the main, potential legal causes of action.
Importance of consulting and retaining an attorney promptly following a case of potential police misconduct in California:
Fortunately, CA has hundreds of police officers in both state and local agencies who do a fine job of law enforcement without resorting to the type of conduct reflected in this incident. However, given the size of the State of California, the number of law enforcement personnel employed in the Golden State and the number of encounters between citizens and police, there are bound to be incidents which may give rise to civil claims for police brutality or misconduct. These include shootings, beatings, false imprisonment, improper arrests and other instances. Civil claims for money damages that may be brought in these cases have very strict requirements and procedures. For example, there are additional Government Tort Claims that must be filed as a precursor to bringing a court action and the results of criminal proceedings can effect and, sometimes, invalidate civil claims. For all these reasons and more, it is crucial to consult with a lawyer familiar with Cal. civil rights claims involving police as quickly as possible. Obtaining the right legal advice and taking the right actions in a timely manner can mean the difference between being able to recover for medical expenses, emotional harm and, potentially, punitive damages and other remedies or losing all legal rights to do so!