David B. Rivkin Jr. and Andrew Grossman specialize in constitutional litigation at the firm Baker Hostetler LLP.
The quest for justice for Michael Brown and Eric Garner did not end with the decisions of grand juries not to indict the police officers whose actions led to those men’s deaths. Those frustrated by the grand juries’ dispositions can take comfort in knowing that victims of police violence, as well as their families, can get their day in court.
The family of Garner, who died after being placed in an apparent chokehold by a New York police officer, has already announced plans to sue the officer and the city for $75 million. Michael Brown’s family has not yet said whether they intend to bring a lawsuit against former Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson or the city, but their lawyer has indicated the possibility is being considered.
These suits may succeed where criminal charges failed. To protect against wrongful conviction, criminal charges must be proved “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the highest standard in law. By contrast, civil plaintiffs need convince a jury only that their claims are supported by a “preponderance of the evidence” — a hair more than 50 percent.
Both families could bring claims for wrongful death, arguing that the officers failed to exercise appropriate care in the confrontations that resulted in the deaths of their family members. Such a claim by Garner’s family would be particularly strong, given that the New York Police Department long ago banned chokeholds precisely to prevent choking-related deaths. As for Brown, the circumstances of his death are less clear at this time, but a trial would provide an opportunity for all the facts to come out. If the “hands-up-don’t-shoot” narrative is correct, the Brown family should be able to prevail.
And unlike a criminal trial, civil litigation can reach beyond the boundaries of a particular case to bring about broader change. Federal law authorizes claims — which can be brought in state or federal court — for violations of constitutional rights by state officials. Such claims can target both individual officers and, where plaintiffs can show that their injuries are the result of an official policy or practice, the municipality itself.
The most obvious civil rights claim in each case would be for the use of excessive force; courts have ruled that the use of force must be “objectively reasonable” under the Fourth Amendment. Such claims are heavily fact-dependent, turning on — in the Supreme Court’s formulation — “the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.” The video of Garner’s death appears to speak directly to these factors: The suspected crime was minor, his threat nonexistent and his actions reflecting frustration with police harassment more than flight or resistance. Again, the evidence concerning Brown’s death is less conclusive.
Both families could also bring claims challenging alleged racial profiling. Typically, such claims argue that a police stop was taken without the reasonable suspicion of criminality required by the Fourth Amendment and was based on race, in violation of the equal protection clause. Profiling claims can be difficult to prove, due to the light burden the law imposes on police officers to justify a brief stop. The officers involved in these cases have already offered reasons for stopping Brown and Garner — walking in the street and selling contraband cigarettes, respectively — that may be sufficient to defeat a profiling claim.
Still, such civil-rights claims could be a powerful way to force changes in policing in Ferguson and New York. Even if the cities themselves are not named as defendants, a finding of liability against an officer would put officials on notice that failure to prevent future abuses will have serious consequences.
Failure to appreciate the important remedies offered by civil law may lead some to draw the wrong lesson from the tragedies in Ferguson and Staten Island: that the protections for those accused of crimes are too strong. But safeguards such as grand juries provide, as the great Justice Joseph Story explained long ago, “security to the citizens against vindictive prosecutions, either by the government, or by political partisans, or by private enemies.” Weakening that security would only further disadvantage communities that already feel they are unfairly targeted by police and prosecutors. If anything, reform should strengthen grand juries for all those accused of crimes to restore what once was a vital check on the power of prosecutors and a protection against the enormous burden of a wrongful indictment.
The mistake on both sides is to assume that victims of crime are entitled to punishment of those they believe are responsible. It is society that is entitled to punish the provably guilty. Criminal prosecution is therefore a poor fit where evidence of guilt is ambiguous or equivocal — as is often the case involving confrontations with police.
What victims are entitled to is compensation for their injuries through civil litigation. That’s why the grand juries’ decisions are not the end of the story for determining police culpability for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
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