Officers from the Sacramento Police Department in California were investigating a report of vandalism when they encountered Stephon Clark, an unarmed 22-year-old African American male in the backyard of his grandmother’s house. For reasons which defy logic and basic humanity, Stephon died in a hail of 20 rounds fired from police revolvers, 8 of the bullets hit Stephon; 6 of the bullets tore into his back from behind. Whether the officers responsible for executing Stephon are ever indicted on criminal charges is uncertain, but most certainly his family will have the right to pursue civil rights violation claims against the Sacramento Police Department and its responsible officers. This is because the Constitution of the United States of America guarantees freedom from overreaching and abusive conduct by our police and other public employees of federal, state, and local government. These same rights exist here in New Jersey.
I. Constitutional Guarantees Against Police Abuse
The 4th Amendment and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution promise, respectively:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses,
papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizure,
shall not be violated…”
“No state…shall…deprive any person of life, liberty, or property,
without due process of law; nor deny any person within its
jurisdiction equal protection of the laws…
The 8th Amendment of our U.S. Constitution provides: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” Similarly, Article I, paragraph 5 and paragraph 12 of the New Jersey State Constitution states, ““Cruel and unusual punishment shall not be inflicted.”
Like the U.S. Constitution, the New Jersey State Constitution guarantees those living, working, or entering New Jersey the right to be free of the government destroying their civil rights. Article I, paragraph 1 of the State Constitution provides that:
“All persons are by nature free and independent, and have certain natural and unalienable rights, among which are those enjoying and defending life and liberty, of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property, and of pursuing and obtaining safety and happiness.”
A. Liability of Municipalities for Violating Civil Rights
42 U.S.C. § 1983 attaches individual liability to those working for or on behalf of a government entity who see fit to deny a private citizen his or her constitutional rights: “Every person who … subjects, or causes to be subjected, any … person … to the deprivation of any rights … secured by the Constitution … shall be liable to the party injured.” 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Amnesty America v. Town of West Hartford, 361 F.3d 113, 124-25 (2d Cir. 2004).
A local city or municipality may be held liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for the violation of a person’s civil rights. In Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 690 (1978), the United States Supreme Court established that local governing bodies can be sued directly under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for monetary, declaratory, or injunctive relief when the action that is alleged to be unconstitutional implements or executes a policy statement, ordinance, regulation, or decision officially adopted and promulgated by that body’s officers.
- Failure to Have Adequate Policies, Guidelines, and Training in Place
A municipality may be liable for the acts of its officers if it fails to adequately train or guide them. City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. at 388. Such failure to train or guide can relate to a single violation where specialized training and guidelines are necessary. Amnesty America, supra, at 113. Courts have found failure to train or establish adequate rules or guidelines is an adequate basis for imposing liability on a municipality in a variety of contexts.
- Liability for Negligent Hiring and Screening of Officers
Municipalities may also be found liable under Monell for negligent hiring and/or screening of its officers. “To impose §1983 liability based on a hiring decision, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the municipal actor disregarded a known or obvious consequence of hiring the applicant.” Griffin v. City of Opa-Locka, 261 F.3d 1295, 1313 (11th Cir. 2001). If an adequate review of an applicant’s background will lead a reasonable policymaker to conclude that the plainly obvious consequence of the decision to hire the applicant would be in deprivation of a third party’s federally protected rights, then the official’s failure to adequately scrutinize the applicant’s background constitutes deliberate indifference. Board of Commissioners of Bryan County v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 411 (1997).
New Jersey has its own civil rights act called The New Jersey Civil Rights Act (“CRA”). CRA prohibits all persons “acting under color of law” from depriving any other person of “any substantive rights, privileges or immunities secured by the Constitution or laws of this State, or whose exercise or enjoyment of those substantive rights, privileges or immunities has been interfered with or attempted to be interfered with, by threats, intimidation or coercion.” N.J.S.A. 10:6-2(c). As with 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a prevailing plaintiff under the CRA is entitled to fair and reasonable compensatory damages for economic loss and personal injuries. Punitive damages are available under the statute against individual defendants. A prevailing party is also entitled to an award of reasonable attorney fees and costs.
The attorneys at Mashel Law are ready to fight to vindicate and obtain damages for economic loss and bodily injury caused by acts of police brutality. Call the lawyers at Mashel Law (732) 536-6161 for help or fill out the contact form on this pa