The intrusive nature of the duties that criminal justice personnel perform exposes them to higher degrees of liability than other occupations. This is not to suggest that physicians, psychologists, social workers, therapists, teachers, or administrators are unlikely to be the subject of a civil lawsuit. It is because criminal justice practitioners restrict citizens’ and prisoners’ liberties and rights, and therefore are more likely to become involved in litigation than members of other professions.
Among the many job functions that criminal justice personnel perform, responding appropriately to street- and institution- level situations is paramount. Criminal justice personnel must also exercise a high degree of skill in using their authority and discretion when implementing department policy and enforcing the law. Legal actions against law enforcement officers frequently arise out of situations in which they have restricted the rights of citizens or prisoners. Other litigation may result from allegations of failing to perform legally assigned duties, performing duties in a negligent manner, misusing authority, using excessive force, or intentionally depriving a prisoner or other person of his or her constitutional rights.
Filing a civil lawsuit in the United States has become all too common since the 1970s. American society has become highly litigious, resorting to filing civil lawsuits without hesitation. Litras and DeFrances (1999) conducted a study for the Department of Justice on the overall trends of 500,000 tort cases filed in the United States during fiscal years 1996–1997. Civil cases arising out of the 75 largest counties were studied. Types of claims ranged from personal injury actions, such as airplane accidents, assaults, libel and slander, and medical malpractice, to motor vehicle accidents and product liability. Motor vehicle accident claims accounted for 20 percent of the cases, while product liability cases accounted for 15 percent and medical malpractice cases accounted for eight percent. Plaintiffs won 45 percent of all cases filed; they were awarded damages in 86 percent of these cases, and punitive damages in 18 percent. The median award was $141,000. In 10 percent of the cases the plaintiff was awarded more than $1 million, and in eight percent of the cases awards exceeded $10 million. Approximately $2.7 billion was awarded in combined compensatory and punitive damages.
Cohen (2005) studied the trends in punitive damages awards in civil trials in the 75 largest counties in the United States during 2001. He reported that slander (58 percent), intentional tort (36 percent), and false arrest/imprisonment (26 percent) represent three of the most common categories in which punitive damages are awarded. Of the 6,504 cases studied, the plaintiff was awarded punitive damages in six percent of the cases. This percentage has remained stable since 1992. Juries are more likely to grant punitive damages than judges. In one- half of the verdicts, the plaintiff was awarded $50,000 or more, in 12 percent $1 million was awarded, and in one
percent $10 million was awarded. Punitive damages exceeded compensatory damages in 43 percent of the cases. Medium and maximum ranges of punitive damages were reported on the three common categories: intentional torts ranged from $16,000 to $4.5 million; slander ranged from $77,000 to $700,000; and false arrest/imprisonment ranged from $8,000 to $100,000.
With the most available figures available, Kyckelhahn and Cohen (2008) performed an assessment of the trends in civil litigation in federal district courts and the outcomes of civil rights disputes from 1990 to 2006. They reported that a significant reason for the variance of trends in civil litigation is the expansion of civil rights law with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Civil Rights Act of 1991. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 amended several federal employment discrimination laws. The Act also provided for compensatory and punitive damages to be awarded, and expanded the use of jury trials.
In the 17- year assessment, Kyckelhahn and Cohen reported that overall civil rights cases filed in federal district courts more than doubled during the 1990s, then began to decline in the early 2000s, and from 2003 to 2006 filings in federal district courts decreased by approximately 20 percent. From 1990 to 2006 the percent of civil rights claims concluded by trial declined from eight to three percent. From 1990 to 2006 about nine out of 10 civil rights filings involved disputes between private parties. The trend in filing private- party disputes emerged with about 16,300 cases filed in 1990, increased to a peak of 40,400 in 1997, and declined to 30,400 cases in 2006.
In 1990, jury and bench trials each accounted for 50 percent of all civil rights trials, but by 2006 jury trials accounted for 87 percent of civil rights trials held in federal district courts. During the reporting period, employment discrimination accounted for about half of all civil rights filings in federal district courts, but filings began to decline in 2004. The percentage of plaintiffs who won at trial amounted to about 30 percent. From 2000 to 2006 the median damages award for prevailing plaintiffs ranged from $114,000 to $154,500. The combined 2000 to 2006 median jury award was $146,125, while the median bench award was $71,500. The period from filing a civil rights suit to resolution in federal district courts took, on average, about 10 months.
Further, Lanton and Cohen (2008) examined the dispositions of civil bench and jury trials in state courts in 2005. They assessed 26,950 disposed cases, which account for a small percentage of the 7.4 million civil claims filed in state courts around the country. They reported on nine litigated categories and found that the plaintiff prevailed in 56 percent of the filings, that plaintiffs were awarded punitive damages in five percent, and the median damage award amounted to $28,000.
Plaintiffs were more likely to prevail in claims involving motor vehicles, animal attacks, and employment discrimination, and less likely to prevail in claims of false arrest/imprisonment and product liability, to mention only a few. High combined compensatory and punitive awards of near or more than $100,000 included premises liability, employment discrimination, medical malpractice, and asbestos. More than 60 percent of the plaintiff winners were granted final monetary awards of $50,000 or less. A jury decided 90 percent of the personal tort claims, while judges decided about 70 percent of business- related civil trials (contracts and real property) in 2005.
Moreover, Cohen and Harbacek (2011) examined punitive damages awards in state courts during 2005. As discussed in Chapter 2
, tort claims such as assault and battery are litigated in state courts.
Compensatory and punitive damages may be awarded to the prevailing plaintiff. Cohen and Harbacek found that, in 25,000 tort claims, 12 percent of the plaintiffs sought punitive damages and were awarded in five percent. Of these awards, 30 percent were awarded about $64,000 and 13 percent were awarded punitive damages of $1 million or more. The researchers also reported that punitive damages are more likely to be awarded in assault and battery, slander, or libel cases, which have elements of willful or intentional behavior that would support a punitive damages request.
Criminal justice agencies and personnel are also vulnerable and easy targets for litigation. During the 1980s and 1990s there were unfortunately a number of high- profile civil liability cases that brought to the forefront the problem of police and correctional officer misconduct nationally. The City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, paid out approximately $3.2 million in 1996 in two separate lawsuits related to a bombing incident that occurred in 1985. Police officers dropped C- 4 explosives from a helicopter on a residence in order to drive out members of an anti- government group. The bomb ignited and fire spread through numerous residences, destroying 61 structures and killing 11 people.
Other incidents have created controversy about police conduct and have resulted in civil litigation. The beating of Rodney King in 1991 led to three Los Angeles police officers being criminally indicted, convicted, and sent to federal prison. Later the City of Los Angeles, California, paid out $3.8 million in a civil judgment to King. In 1993 two Detroit, Michigan, police officers were prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to prison for the beating death of Malice Green. In 2000 several New York City police officers were convicted and sentenced to prison for beating Abner Louima and forcing a toilet plunger handle into his rectum.
Moreover, there have been successful outcomes in high- profile cases alleging officer misconduct. In the spring of 2000, four New York City police officers were acquitted of criminal charges in the shooting death of Amadou Diallo. In that case the officers fired their weapons 41 times. Officers approached Diallo and he made a sudden reaching movement for his wallet. Because of low lighting in the doorway of the apartment complex, visibility was poor and officers mistakenly took his movements as threatening and the appearance of the wallet for a weapon.
In the summer of 2000 the Federal Bureau of Investigation prevailed in a civil lawsuit brought by survivors and families of the Branch Davidian group in Waco, Texas (Garcia, 2000). Agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) were executing a warrant for the arrest of David Koresh for firearms violations when they encountered lethal resistance from him and members of his cult in February 1993. Several agents were injured and six were killed. For more than 50 days Koresh and his followers refused to exit their compound and submit to arrest. The siege ended with the main housing structure being burned as FBI agents attempted to enter the building.
Four million dollars in damages were paid out for a deadly force incident in 1995. The Ruby Ridge standoff incident in Montana left one U.S. marshal and the wife and one child of Randall Weaver dead. An FBI sniper shot and killed Vicki Weaver while holding her infant child.
Federal agents were attempting to arrest Weaver on charges of possessing and selling illegal firearms.
While individual civil lawsuits filed against police officers have gained momentum since the 1980s, the federal government, through the Department of Justice, has brought civil lawsuits against several police departments. These lawsuits have been brought under § 210401 of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (Title 42 U.S.C. § 14141). The Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Steubenville, Ohio, police departments were the first police agencies to complete federal oversight through a consent decree for five years through this law (DOJ, 1997a, b; 2005).
Jails and prison systems in the United States are also subject to prisoner civil litigation and many have sustained consent decrees. Koren (1994) reported that the number of correctional systems under court order/consent decree increased from 11 in 1988 to 39 in 1994, largely due to prisoner litigation. Correctional entities have also been targets of prisoner litigation. In 2000 the Michigan Department of Corrections settled several civil lawsuits involving sexual abuse of female prisoners by male officers. In Texas a privately operated jail incurred litigation stemming from a shakedown in which officers were alleged to have used excessive force and physically abused prisoners, violating their constitutional rights. The actions of the “shakedown” were videotaped and later broadcast on Dateline NBC in 1997. The videotape showed officers and command personnel requiring prisoners to crawl across the floor nude, while officers kicked and pepper- sprayed them, prodded them with stun- guns, and then used a dog to move them out of their cells. On several occasions the videotape showed the dog biting various compliant prisoners. This incident resulted in a civil litigation claim against the sheriff, the chief deputy, and a county official in charge of the detention center’...