While I was in law school in St. Louis, I worked on a number of lawsuits against the police alleging the city had a practice of systematically violating the constitutional rights of homeless people in the city immediately before and during big civic events. The lawsuits alleged that the police would violate the rights of the homeless in an effort to make the city seem more appealing to tourists who would come to these events. Some of the stories I heard, from homeless people spending 23.5 hours naked in a cell, to rounding people up, bussing them to another city, and leaving them there, stick with me to this day.
Working on those lawsuits against the police were some of my most formative experiences as a law student. Thankfully, since coming back to Colorado, I have met a number of police officers in southern Colorado who are good people doing the best they can to protect all members of the community. One of those friends was a first responder to the Planned Parenthood shooting here in the Springs last year. Hearing about the bullets flying around him as he helped victims and tried to get them to safety really drives home just how much a good police officer risks serving the public.
Despite my admiration for the officers who serve and protect our community, I do not believe that an officer who violates someone’s constitutional rights, whether through ignorance, poor training, or willfully should go unpunished. Thankfully, there is a mechanism for lawsuits against the police, sheriffs, or other government officials who violate a person’s constitutional rights. 42 U.S.C. § 1983 allows a person whose constitutional rights have been violated by someone under governmental authority to bring a lawsuit in federal court to protect and vindicate their rights.
One very important aspect of this law is that if a person sues under § 1983 and wins, they are entitled to an award of attorney fees. This encourages an attorney whose client’s rights are violated to represent that client, even if the damages are not very large. For example, the homeless people in St. Louis whose rights were violated didn’t lose work, and were not physically injured, and therefore didn’t require medical care. Many would only receive nominal compensation from the city, sometimes as little as $1. But the attorneys who spent a lot of time and effort prosecuting the case, ensuring that the illegal police practices were brought to an end, were compensated for their time and effort by the city, so the homeless people of St. Louis weren’t required to pay thousands of dollars they didn’t have to take legal action to protect their rights.
Lawsuits against the police are unpleasant, but sometimes quite necessary. They are the method through which our society deals with these issue in a civilized way. Thankfully, we have a way for people to protect their constitutional rights from the government through a court of law instead of anarchy. If your constitutional rights have been violated and you need to speak to a lawyer about lawsuits against the police or other government agency, find a lawyer you can trust to protect these important rights.