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WHAT ARE CIVIL RIGHTS?
In the United States of America, you have civil rights, as does everyone in the country. However, what are civil rights? The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) defines civil rights as “. . . personal rights guaranteed and protected by the U.S. Constitution and federal laws enacted by Congress, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990”1Office for Civil Rights (OCR), What Are Civil Rights?, https://www.hhs.gov/civil-rights/for-individuals/faqs/what-are-civil-rights/101/index.html (last modified Oct. 29, 2021). Therefore, civil rights are personal—i.e., they belong to you, and you are entitled to them. Civil rights protect individuals from undue discrimination, among other things. Civil rights also protect individuals’ personal safety and security, as well as security in their papers and affairs. So, what happens when someone violates your civil rights?
VIOLATION OF CIVIL RIGHTS
What would a violation of your civil rights look like? The HHS provides that “[t]he HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) enforces civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, disability, age, religion, and sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, and gender identity) by certain health care and human services entities . . . .”2Id. Therefore, “certain health care and human services entities”3Id. are prohibited from, for example, denying health care or human services to an individual based on the fact that they are gay or black. Discriminating against a gay person or a black person by denying them services violates said person’s civil rights because they are entitled to exist without undue discrimination.
Another, more extreme example of a civil rights violation is when a police officer, with no warrant, probable cause, or reasonable suspicion, drags an individual violently out of their vehicle and subdues them forcibly to the ground. Because, in this example, there was no reason to act against the individual in that manner, the police officer’s conduct violated that person’s Fourth Amendment civil rights to be secure in their person and not be subjected to unreasonable searches and seizures. These types of violations by law enforcement are, unfortunately, relatively common.
HISTORY OF SETTLEMENTS IN CIVIL RIGHTS VIOLATION CASES
If your civil rights were indubitably and unjustly violated, you may be entitled to a settlement in monetary damages. How much can you receive in damages to ameliorate your violated civil rights? A 1974 journal by the Valparaiso University Law Review titled “Measuring Damages for Violations of Individuals’ Constitutional Rights”4Valparaiso University Law Review, Measuring Damages for Violations of Individuals’ Constitutional Rights, 8 Number 2 Symp. on Fed. Jurisdiction & Proc. 357-73, https://scholar.valpo.edu/vulr/vol8/iss2/7 (1974) provides that federal officials, such as federal police officers, “who violate an individual’s constitutional rights while acting under color of federal law”5Id. may give cause for the individual whose rights were violated to be entitled to monetary damages as a result. The journal provides that under the case of Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotic,6403 U.S. 388 (1971) “money damages [are] an appropriate remedy”7Review, supra, https://scholar.valpo.edu/vulr/vol8/iss2/7 in cases where the Fourth Amendment rights of an individual were violated, and said violation of rights “can be used as the basis for a damage suit against federal officials who violate an individual’s constitutional rights while acting under color of federal law.”8Id. Furthermore, the journal provides that “[b]ecause Bivens creates the basis for a damage suit against federal officials, a method of measuring damages resulting from violations of constitutional rights must be developed.”9Id.
In determining a standard for the amount in an award of damages to an individual whose civil rights were violated, the journal provides several cases for illustration:
- In the case of McArthur v. Pennington10253 F. Supp. 420 (E.D. Tenn. 1963) were present the torts of false arrest and battery, as well as a violation of the complainant’s “fourth amendment rights . . . to be free from unwarranted attacks upon the integrity of his person.”11Review, supra, https://scholar.valpo.edu/vulr/vol8/iss2/7, at 358
In this case, “[t]he final award consisted of $3,401.49 for out-of-pocket expenses and lost wages and $1,698.51 for physical and mental suffering, humiliation and injury to reputation.”12Id.
- In the case of Arroyo v. Walsh,13317 F. Supp. 869 (D. Conn. 1970) Plaintiff “received $2,500.00 for a broken nose sustained during a beating administered by police officers during a false arrest.”14Review, supra, https://scholar.valpo.edu/vulr/vol8/iss2/7, at 359
- In a case with circumstances similar to Arroyo, the case of Jackson v. Dukes,15259 F.2d 3 (5th Cir. 1958) the plaintiff “received $5,000.00 for similar injuries suffered under comparable circumstances.”16Review, supra, https://scholar.valpo.edu/vulr/vol8/iss2/7, at 359.
- In the case of Collum v. Butler,17288 F. Supp. 918 (N.D. Ill. 1968), aff’d, 421 F.2d 1257 (7th Cir. 1970) “the plaintiff proved that he received a beating during a valid arrest,” and the jury “returned a verdict of $17,500.00.”
Despite the numbers provided in the above arguably antiquated cases, the interests of law and justice in recent times are best served by zealously protecting and advocating for individuals’ constitutional rights. “An expression of this view can be found in United States ex rel. Mottley v. Rundle,18340 F. Supp. 807 (E.D. Pa. 1972) a false imprisonment case, wherein the court stated: ‘Constitutional rights of a citizen are so valuable that an injury is presumed to flow from the deprivation itself.’”19Review, supra, https://scholar.valpo.edu/vulr/vol8/iss2/7, at 361. Therefore, having established that a deprivation of civil rights is, in itself, a violation that warrants recovery, now comes the issue of the jury’s deliberations.
When assigning damages for civil rights violations, the journal provides that a jury’s consideration of a plaintiff’s damages does not come inherent with measurable economic or physical loss; therefore, a jury must forego this consideration when assigning damages for civil rights violations and instead, “allow the final award to reflect the jury’s deliberations as to the value of the right in questions, the extent of the violation, the circumstances surrounding the violation, and the defendant’s culpability…”20Id. at 363. and that in such a manner, “…the plaintiff’s interests will be more adequately protected.”21Id. With this standard established, juries were free to deliberate as they found appropriate when assigning damages in civil rights violation cases.
An important thing to add is that certain groups are immune to civil rights lawsuits. “It is well settled that a state and its agencies, as well as employees of that state and its agencies acting in their official capacities, do not fit within the meaning of a ‘person.’”22Cline v. State, Division of Child & Family Services, 142 P.3d 127, 132 (Utah Ct. App. 2006) Obviously, state officials are persons; however, a suit against a state official in their official capacity is not a suit against the official, but it is rather a suit against the official’s office.23Brandon v. Holt, 469 U.S. 464, 471 (1985) As such, it is no different from a suit against the State itself.24Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 165-166 (1985); Monell, supra, at 690, n. 55 “We hold that neither a State nor its officials acting in their official capacities are ‘persons’ under U.S.C. § 1983.”25Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989)
Specifically, 42 U.S.C. §1983 provides that
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 (emphasis added).42 U.S.C. § 1983
As underlined above, a “judicial officer” is not a police officer. A judicial officer is any officer of the court—i.e., an officer acting under the powers of the judicial branch of government—such as judges and magistrates. A police officer—i.e., a law enforcement officer—acts under the powers of the executive branch of government, so the exception emphasized in the above code does not apply to them. Therefore, while you likely cannot sue a judicial officer for a civil rights violation, you can sue any law enforcement officer if they violate your civil rights.
SETTLEMENTS IN RECENT CASES
With the foregoing history of civil rights violation settlements established, what could your damages for violating your civil rights look like today? Below is a list of recent civil rights violation cases and their settlements.
- In the 2007 case of Gousse v. City of Los Angeles,26No. B174896, 2007 WL 1056706 (Cal. Ct. App. Apr. 10, 2007) the plaintiff, a Haitian immigrant surgeon visiting Los Angeles for a medical conference, became the victim of excessive force by police. The police detained the plaintiff unlawfully. During the unfounded detention, the plaintiff’s hand was bound so tightly that it caused severe nerve damage to his hand, and as a result, the plaintiff could no longer perform surgery. In this case, the jury reached a verdict of $33,000.000.00.
- In the case of Rastello v. Torrance Police Department, the parties settled on appeal for $6,500,000.00, plus attorney’s fees of $2,100,000.00, for the wrongful death of a 19-year-old motorcyclist killed when a police sergeant, who had been drinking, turned left into the decedent. The violation of the victim’s civil rights occurred when the police department attempted to cover up the incident.
- In the case of Miller v. Los Angeles Police Department, the parties settled for $450,000.00 in a case where police used excessive force and beat the plaintiff with a flashlight eleven times after the plaintiff surrendered.
ACTIONS THAT CAN BE TAKEN IF YOUR CIVIL RIGHTS WERE VIOLATED
It can be scary to report a civil rights violation or seek compensation. If your civil rights were violated, as explained herein, you are likely entitled to monetary compensation. There are a few things that Altiorem can do for you if your civil rights were violated: we can investigate the civil rights violation, gather and organize evidence regarding the violation, and complete all the legal paperwork you will need for your case—from start to finish. Altiorem will help you decide the best steps to take in order to get the best outcome possible for your case.
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