Police Abuse Cases On the Rise

July 19th, 2016

With police shootings seemingly gaining national publicity on a weekly basis, Virginia has not been on the sidelines for the civil lawsuits that sometimes spring from instances of police overreach.

Federal civil rights suits against police have historically been difficult cases to prosecute, for several reasons. First, neither the police department nor the local government entity may be sued; suit must name specific officers alleged to have used excessive force. Second, while officers are not absolutely immune from suit in the way governmental entities are, they do benefit from a qualified immunity that insulates them from liability unless they were grossly negligent in exceeding well-established standards of conduct.

Adding to those difficulties, juries have historically been very supportive of police and willing to give them the benefit of the doubt in close cases. And our area’s federal courts, in particular the federal appeals court here, have a well-earned reputation for supporting law enforcement except in the most egregious cases.

Even the most ardent advocates acknowledge that police work is difficult and dangerous, and officers deserve our support. But like any profession, policing has its bad apples, or the occasional crossing of the line by an otherwise good officer. Here in Virginia, these cases are increasingly succeeding in gaining compensation for parties whose civil rights have been violated, with or without physical injuries.

One definitive indication of the courts’ support for these cases has been a recent spate of instances where police claims of qualified immunity have been rejected. Those rejections typically mean that the claims will proceed on to trial before juries (often paving the way to out-of-court settlements). Among the recent cases allowed by federal judges have been:

    • A man stopped and questioned after his wife had asked police to interrogate him due to a domestic dispute not involving violence was seized in a SWAT-like assault and taken into custody, supposedly due to his lawful possession of a hunting rifle;
    • A driver unable to respond to police commands after a traffic stop due to his having suffered a stroke, but who did nothing to threaten the safety of the officers or others, was pepper sprayed and Tasered as part of an effort to force his compliance; and
      Jail deputies, warned that a particular inmate had been threatened by other inmates, told the other inmates of the complaint, with the result that the complaining inmate was severely beaten.

  • In addition to these recently publicized cases, Marrs & Henry has represented three additional citizens whose rights were violated in cases that, due to their confidential nature, cannot be detailed here.

One of the key factors fueling these cases is that in the past, law suits often devolved into “swearing contests” between uniformed officers and citizens who stood accused of crimes. Juries were typically unwilling to disbelieve the officers in those situations. In today’s world, however, video surveillance abounds, cell phone cameras are everywhere, and indeed, police officers themselves are often equipped with dashboard or even body cameras. As a result, exactly what happened is, in many situations, no longer subject to dispute.

At Marrs & Henry, we do not doubt that the overwhelming majority of police officers are well intentioned, well trained, and above reproach. Certainly, there can be no justification for the recent attacks on innocent police officers across the nation. But even our nation’s founding fathers knew that with police power comes the potential for abuse; that is why protections for citizens were given such high priority in the Bill of Rights. Given that there are well over 7 million residents in Virginia, it should come as no surprise that a handful of regrettable incidents may occur each year. Increasingly, it appears that those who are indeed genuinely abused will have recourse and compensation.