Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

People wronged by the criminal justice system face a long road to compensation

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The American criminal justice system is nothing to be proud of. Radley Balko reports in the Washington Post:

A couple weeks ago, Nathan Burney drew up a cartoon for The Watch that explained the concept of qualified immunity. This is the protection given to state employees, including police, from lawsuits alleging violations of constitutional rights. Before even getting in front of a jury, a plaintiff must not only show that his rights were violated, but that a reasonable person in the public employee’s position should have known that the actions in question were in violation of the Constitution. It’s a tough hurdle to overcome. And even then, the plaintiff could still fail to persuade a jury.

A couple recent appeals court decisions demonstrate just how difficult it can be for a victim to win compensation.

The first comes from Ferguson, Mo., where Henry Davis sued three police officers for allegedly beating him in a jail cell while he was compliant and subdued. While the evidence suggests that Davis was initially uncooperative, the appeals court ruling notes that testimony supports the contention that this wasn’t the case when the officers began beating him. Davis was then charged with “property damage” for bleeding on the officers’ uniforms.

That brings us to this amazing passage from an opinion by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit:

The district court granted summary judgment dismissing these claims on a narrow ground. “Qualified immunity shields police officers from liability for civil damages where their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” . . . Noting that, until recently, some of our decisions suggested that an excessive force claim will not lie if the plaintiff suffered only “de minimis injuries,” the court concluded that the police officers were entitled to qualified immunity because, “as unreasonable as it may sound, a reasonable officer could have believed that beating a subdued and compliant Mr. Davis while causing only a concussion, scalp laceration, and bruising with almost no permanent damage did not violate the Constitution.

The court overturned the district court judge’s opinion. But it’s remarkable that it would need to. Here are a few other things to keep in mind:

  • Davis is fortunate to have attorneys willing to appeal that decision.
  • He could still lose in front of a jury.
  • Even if he wins, the officers could appeal.
  • Even if he wins the appeal, the officers likely won’t be paying a dime. Unless the jury specifically calls for punitive damages, the award will be paid for by the people of Ferguson.
  • The appeals court ruled against Davis’s claim against the city of Ferguson, finding that the city is protected by sovereign immunity. To get past sovereign immunity, Davis would have to show that Ferguson police have demonstrated a pattern and practice of constitutional violations. (This incident happened in 2009.) Despite the numerous reports of precisely that, including one from the Department of Justice, Davis lost here. It seems doubtful that the DOJ report would have been released in time to be admitted into evidence. But this shows how tough it is to establish a pattern or practice of violations, even in jurisdictions where that’s clearly the case.

The other case involves Benny Starks, about whom I wrote in my series on bite mark evidence. Starks spent 20 years in prison after he was convicted of the rape and assault of a 69-year-old woman in 1986. He was convicted primarily due to testimony from bite mark analysts Russell Schneider and Carl Hagstrom, testimony from blood serologist Sharon Thomas-Boyd, and an identification by the victim. (The victim initially described her assailant as clean-shaven and 18-19 years old. Starks at the time was 26, and had a mustache and beard.) Schneider and Hagstrom claimed to have found a bite mark on the victim that matched Starks’s teeth “to a reasonable medical certainty.” . . .

Continue reading. And do read the whole thing: The Starks case is an eye-opener into just how bad the US criminal justice system is.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 July 2015 at 11:49 am

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