Jon O. Newman is a senior judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
The acquittal Thursday of another Baltimore police officer charged in the death of Freddie Gray, like the acquittal 25 years ago of the Los Angeles officers who beat Rodney King, reveals the inadequacy of the criminal-law remedy. Suing the police for money under a strengthened federal civil rights law would be a better response to police misconduct.
Right now, however, federal law makes it more difficult to sue a police officer for denying a citizen his constitutional rights than for injuring him by ordinary negligence. If an officer negligently drives his car and injures a citizen, the victim can win money just by proving negligence, and the city that employs the officer pays whatever the jury awards.
But when an officer uses excessive force or makes an unlawful arrest or search, proving wrongful conduct is not enough. Under Section 1983 of the federal civil rights statute, the officer can escape liability with the special defense of qualified immunity — showing that he reasonably believed his conduct was lawful, even if it was not. And if the jury finds the officer liable, federal law does not require his employer to pay the award.
Juries, and even judges in non-jury trials, are reluctant to convict police officers of a crime, even in the face of ample evidence. With rare exceptions, they simply will not say “guilty” and risk sending an officer to prison. Suing the officer for money damages in a federal civil rights suit is the only realistic way to establish police misconduct and secure at least some vindication for victims and their families.
But Congress needs to strengthen Section 1983 in three ways. First, the defense of qualified immunity should be abolished. If an officer violates the Constitution, the victim should win the lawsuit, just as he or she wins when hit by an officer negligently driving his vehicle.
Second, the city (or county or state) that employs the officer should pay a damage award, just as a governmental employer pays for injury caused by an officer’s negligent driving. A jury would be more willing to rule against a city than to make a police officer pay out of his own pocket.
Third, the local U.S. attorney, not just the victim of the unconstitutional conduct, should be authorized to bring the suit. When federal law has been violated, a federal lawyer should act on behalf of the victim. A jury is more likely to take the matter seriously if a U.S. attorney sues than when the victim is the plaintiff, who can sometimes be perceived as a not very respectable member of the community.
There is no reason for federal law to make it more difficult to hold a police officer accountable for denying constitutional rights than for injuring by negligent conduct. Congress should act to make a strengthened Section 1983 remedy available for the next episode of police misconduct.
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